The dilemma for British nationalism

Since the publication of the first paper in the Scottish Government’s series of papers setting out a fresh case for independence, there has been much talk of the difficulties that the Scottish Government will face in securing a lawful and recognised ballot. However, perhaps unsurprisingly given the overwhelmingly anti-independence bias of the majority of the Scottish media, far less attention has been paid to the quandary in which the anti-independence parties now find themselves.

Basically, the Tories and Labour will either have to concede that there needs to be a second independence referendum, one which they know they have only a poor chance of winning, or they will have to admit that the entire foundation of traditional Scottish unionism is a lie and tell Scotland that the operation of democracy in Scotland is subject to a veto from an unpopular Prime Minister whom Scotland didn’t vote for – a Prime Minister who doesn’t need an ethics advisor but rather a probation officer – and that everything that they have told us about the people of Scotland having the absolute right to choose for themselves the form of government best suited to their needs was only ever a convenient fairy story which they agreed to when they didn’t think that Scotland would opt for a form of government which did not include the Westminster parliament.

The mandate which Holyrood possesses for another independence referendum is, as the First Minister has pointed out “cast iron”. The subject of another independence referendum absolutely dominated the Holyrood election last year. Everyone was fully aware of what it meant when they cast their ballot in a certain way, not least that shadowy and suspiciously well funded British nationalist group which organised a tactical voting campaign in order to deprive the new Parliament of a pro-independence majority. It failed. The Tories knew that a pro-independence majority in Holyrood meant that there would be another referendum, which is why they threw all their energies and dark money into trying to ensure that didn’t happen. They failed.

Labour knew that a pro-independence majority in Holyrood would mean that the electorate had voted for another referendum. That was why Anas Sarwar went on interminably about all the reasons why he thought there shouldn’t be one. The voters listened, and then voted for parties that wanted another referendum. Holyrood now has the greatest pro-independence majority it has ever had, and the two pro-independence parties represented in Parliament both stood on unequivocal and explicit manifesto commitments to another referendum. However the anti-independence parties and their friends in the media are desperately trying to gaslight Scotland int believing that there isn’t really a legitimate democratic demand for another referendum. For Labour and the Tories to imply now that people didn’t know what they were voting for is a gross insult to the intelligence of the people of Scotland. Opponents of independence are now reduced to delaying tactics and unconvincing sophistry in order to escape the dilemma in which they are now trapped.

The Unionist columnist Alex Massie is a case in point, during much of the first independence referendum campaign Massie spent months posing as an undecided voter before triumphantly announcing just before the vote that he was unconvinced by the Yes campaign’s arguments and intended to vote no. Based upon his writings ever since it’s hard to escape the conclusion that he intended to vote no all along and was merely pretending to be undecided in order to get publicity for himself and to inflict damage on the Yes campaign at a crucial juncture before the vote.

Massie has now published a piece in the Sunday Times in which he argues that the current push for a referendum is “doomed to fail”, claiming that there is no appetite for it in Scotland. This claim is based upon his and his anti-independence colleagues’ interpretation of opinion polls. But government is not carried out on the basis of opinion polling, it is carried out on the basis of election victories, and despite Massie’s protestations to the contrary it very much *is* democracy denying to seek recourse in the courts or to appeal to the veto of a British Prime Minister who has no mandate in Scotland in order to prevent the Scottish Parliament from implementing the policy that the Scottish electorate elected it for.

Massie also makes the frankly outlandish and ludicrous suggestion that a future referendum should only take place when all the parties agree to it – no matter what the people of Scotland have voted for. In other words Scotland should only ever have a chance to ask itself if it wants to become independent if the parties opposed to independence agree to allow it. Those parties are not going to consent to a referendum when, as now, it seems likely that they could lose it. So in other words what Massie is saying is that Scotland can only ever have an independence referendum if it is a foregone conclusion that the result will be a victory for opponents of independence, which makes a travesty of the entire idea of referendums. Still, at least he’s honest about it, which is more than can be said for the Labour or Conservative parties.

He further suggests that the threshold for victory should be increased to two thirds, which could potentially lead to a majority in Scotland voting for independence yet it still being refused. It seems that Massie hasn’t quite grasped the concept of “democracy denial.” But then he’s a British nationalist which means that by definition he’s not a nationalist because he’s British, so a self-serving rewriting of the rules is very much on brand. Just as British nationalism isn’t nationalist in the eyes of British nationalists, British nationalist democracy denial isn’t a denial of democracy, because it’s British.

Despite the sophistry, the gaslighting and the self-serving attempts to rewrite the rules, it’s really very simple. As Massie points out, it is perfectly legitimate for the anti-independence parties to continue to oppose independence and another referendum, and they can do so by voting according to their beliefs when the matter is put to a vote at Holyrood. However the anti-independence parties do not have a majority in Holyrood, so they can only thwart the will of Holyrood and block the referendum by having recourse to extra-parliamentary means. To do so is very much the denial of Scottish democracy, no matter how much Massie and his ilk assert otherwise. And that opens up the fundamental question, if the UK cannot or will not respect the democratic will of the people of Scotland then this is not a democratic union but an authoritarian state of coercion.

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