Oh look, another Vow

It was only a week ago that the First Minister dropped a bombshell on the Anglo-British nationalist parties by setting out how the Scottish Government intends to hold a lawful vote on Scottish independence with or without the permission of the Prime Law Breaker. The penny is starting to drop on them that they do not hold all the cards and that there will either be a lawful referendum or they face going into the next UK General Election facing a united Yes alliance seeking a mandate for independence while they try to defend a British state which has ruled that Scotland can only exercise its historic sovereign right to national self-determination with the permission of a British Prime Minister whose party has not won an election in Scotland since the 1950s. Good luck with that one lads.

The First Minister’s announcement was followed within days by an opinion poll giving a lead for Yes, a poll made more significant by the fact that it was conducted by a company which has tended to produce worse results for yes than other companies, and the campaigning has only just begun. At a comparable stage in the first referendum campaign support for Yes was languishing in the 30s and the people who were then insisting that they were not nationalists were confidently predicting an overwhelming victory for the No campaign.

It was not until the final weeks of the campaign that the Better Together parties started to realise that the result was going to be far closer than they had originally anticipated and they began to hastily cobble together some carrots to dangle before the Scottish electorate in order to fend off that dreaded majority for Yes.

This time around Better Together 2.0 is getting its panic in early. The campaign has only just begun and already the Labour party is allowing us to say, “Oh look, another Vow.” At an event in London on Monday, Anas Sarwar, Labour’s branch office manager in Scotland, will announce what he proudly claims is Labour’s alternative to independence, an alternative which essentially boils down to asking Scotland to trust that Westminster won’t shaft it again, which given Westminster’s previous track record with vows is a pretty big ask.

This time the Vow, honest to god we really mean it this time pinkie promise I swear on my dug’s life, consists of the Labour party telling us that instead of independence Scotland can have Westminster pass some legislation which would introduce a “new legal duty of co-operation between the UK and Scottish governments”. According to the branch manager this would”ensure [that Holyrood and Westminster] work together where they can and not against each other”. Now isn’t that just lovely. Sarwar seems to think that this would protect Scotland from the shameful treatment we witnessed at the hands of the Conservatives following 2016’s Brexit vote when the British Government embarked upon the hardest possible Brexit and did not bother to keep the Scottish Parliament informed, never mind consult with it or seek its agreement when its Brexit plans impinged upon the devolution settlement.

This is a vow that falls apart on even the most cursory examination. There are three big problems with it. First of all we need to trust that voters in England will return a Labour Government at the next election, which is very far from certain, notwithstanding Keir Starmer’s conversion into a hardline Brextremist who has promised that a Labour government would never take the UK back into the EU’s single market. So if you were looking to the Labour party to restore your right to freedom of movement throughout Europe, forget it.

Secondly we need to trust that Labour will implement this promise in full and will not seek to water it down the second that a vote against independence is in the bag. You don’t need a long memory to remember Labour’s unseemly haste to strip Gordon Brown’s vow of any substance in the Smith Commission negotiations following the No vote in the 2014 referendum. So it is now incumbent upon Anas Sarwar and the Labour party to prove that they won’t pull the same trick again. Quite how they can achieve that, I don’t know, but I do know it can be filed under “That would be a you problem, Anas.” Labour has already betrayed the trust of the people of Scotland, they’re not going to get it back just because they tell us that this time they mean it.

However it’s the third problem which looks to be insurmountable. The British constitution is founded upon the principle of the absolute sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament and the doctrine that no Westminster Parliament may bind its successor. Labour is as much in thrall to this fetishisation of Westminster sovereignty as the Tories are. So even if we accept that Anas Sarwar’s grand alternative to independence will be implemented sincerely, honestly, and in full, something which cannot be taken for granted. There is absolutely no way in which the Labour party can guarantee that this law would not be repealed, side-stepped, or rendered meaningless by a future Conservative Government. The Westminster doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty means that no Westminster Parliament can bind the hands of its successors, so it is impossible for Sarwar’s proposed legislation to be protected from a future Conservative Government which doesn’t like it.

We saw something very similar already with the Sewel Convention which said that no Westminster Government would meddle with the powers of the Scottish Parliament without Holyrood’s consent. It was one of the key promises of the Better Together campaign that this convention would be enshrined in law. First of all Westminster inserted the weasel word “normally” into the phrasing, so it read that the Westminster Government would not normally meddle with the powers of the Scottish Parliament without Holyrood’s consent, giving itself a convenient get out of jail free card.

Following the Brexit vote, Theresa May’s government sought a Supreme Court ruling and the UK Supreme Court ruled that the provision had no force in law as it conflicted with the doctrine that no Westminster Parliament can bind the hands of its successors. And if that was not insult enough, Theresa May’s Government added insult to injury by redefining Holyrood consent. Holyrood saying Yes would count as consent, Holyrood refusing to engage with the Westminster government would count as consent, and Holyrood saying No would count as consent too. There is absolutely nothing to prevent a future Tory Government from doing something very similar to Anas Sarwar’s proposed legislation. It could easily redefine “co-operation” to mean issuing Holyrood a direct order.

Anas Sarwar knows all this too. He knows that what he is proposing can easily be stripped of substance and meaning just as soon as Westminster decides it is in its interests to do so. But he also knows that the British nationalist parties have blown up most of the arguments that they deployed against independence in the 2014 referendum and he is scrabbling around for something to differentiate a democracy denying Labour party from a democracy denying Conservative party. The fact that the best he can come up with is this intelligence insulting nonsense merely illustrates just how much trouble Better Together 2.0 is in. And Anas Sarwar knows that as well, which is why he is hand in glove with the Tories in trying to subvert Scottish democracy and stop a referendum from taking place.

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