The elephant and the bin bag

In an earlier piece this week I remarked that the current behaviour of Satan’s little helpers the DUP, following their historic defeat in the recent Northern Irish Assembly elections demonstrated the fundamentally undemocratic nature of British nationalism in both Scotland and Northern Ireland. British nationalism is a dogma which disguises itself with a veneer of respect for democracy, but in reality it is a majoritarian, not a properly democratic form of politics.

Majoritarianism is the belief that the majority community should be able to rule a country in whichever way it wants, by disregarding the wishes and needs of the minority. This can easily be confused with democracy as long as the majority community is indeed the majority, but the moment that majority community loses its former dominance, its true anti-democratic nature becomes apparent.

This is what is happening in Northern Ireland just now as the DUP, aided and abetted by the Conservatives in Westminster tries to destroy the Northern Irish Protocol despite losing the recent election to Sinn Fein and despite the electorate of Northern Ireland voting for a Stormont with a large majority of parties which support the Protocol.

The DUP is unable to accept that it no longer represents the majority of the population, ever since the British carved Northern Ireland out of Ireland in order to create an artificial Unionist majority in the north, it has been an article of faith amongst Northern Irish Unionists that they are the majority community. They are emotionally and psychologically unable to accept that this is no longer the case. This is why the DUP and the even more frothy and extremist TUV which split from the DUP in 2007 because it objected to the DUP sharing power in Stormont with Irish nationalists believe that they are justified in bringing down the Assembly because the voters of Northern Ireland had the temerity to make Sinn Fein the largest party and to give an absolute majority to parties supporting the protocol.

British nationalists in Scotland have a very similar view of themselves and the same majoritarian and anti-democratic tendencies. One prominent and particularly zoomy Scottish Unionist group on social media even calls itself “the Majority,” unsurprisingly this betokens a conceptual inability to comprehend that its brand of hard line unionism may not in fact be supported by a majority and an equal inability to accept that there is a majority in the current Scottish Parliament for holding another independence referendum. Holyrood’s pro-independence majority and the mandate which it possesses for another independence referendum must be delegitimised, sidelined, and discounted, because to accept its existence means accepting that the Unionist “majority” may not in fact be a majority after all.

Mainstream opponents of Scottish independence are usually careful to maintain a veneer of democratic accountability. However former Scottish Conservative MSP Adam Tomkins let the mask slip in a recent article for the Herald newspaper. Tomkins has been something of a loose Scottish Tory cannon ever since he was ousted from his front bench position in the Scottish Tories following the putsch orchestrated by Ruth Davidson which unseated Jackson Carlaw and replaced him with Douglas Ross.

In the piece Tomkins tacitly acknowledges that the Scottish Parliament has both a mandate for another independence referendum and the majority needed to pass a Bill in Holyrood in order to legislate for a second independence referendum. He goes further than most of his unionist colleagues by admitting that if there is another independence then Yes side would win. He says that Yes would win because of public anger about Brexit, the British Government’s mismanagement of covid, Westminster’s failure to reform and for the corruption and contempt which characterises the Conservative government.

However this is where Tomkins reveals the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of British nationalism in Scotland. He believes that it is this certainty of a yes victory which makes it imperative both that the British Government refuses to permit another independence referendum and that any Bill which Holyrood passes in order to facilitate another independence referendum should be struck down by the UK Supreme Court as unlawful. The message from this prominent Scottish Tory is clear: “Scotland you can’t be allowed to have an independence referendum because you’ll only use it to vote in a way that British Unionists won’t like.”

Tomkins dismisses the outrage that this undemocratic and authoritarian move would invariably provoke as “political noise” which the British constitution will “quietly deal with”. I suspect that Tomkins in his legalistic arrogance gravely underestimates the political ramifications and consequences of what he is proposing.

The Scottish constitutional debate cannot be resolved by the law because it is a political problem not a legal problem. That public anger with Westminster which Tomkins gives as the reason why he believes Yes would win the referendum will not go away because Westminster resorts to legal chicanery in order to evade the democratic verdict of the people. It will only intensify and deepen the anger. Tomkins is proposing the wrong tool for the wrong job. What Tomkins is advocating is like suggesting that you can dispose of an angry elephant by stuffing it in a bin bag and chucking it in the bin. You’re just going to end up with a shredded bin bag and an even angrier elephant.

What is being acknowledged here by a former Scottish Conservative front bencher is that the traditional Scottish Unionist conceit that the union between Scotland and England is entirely voluntary is a fiction and that there is no democratic path by which the people of Scotland can express their desire for another independence referendum. He is saying that another referendum is entirely the gift of the British Prime Minister, who will only grant one if he or she is certain that it will produce the result that British nationalists desire.

Tomkins is making it plain that the entire basis upon which the people of Scotland have accepted the Union since the introduction of the democratic franchise is a lie and that Scotland is after all a mere possession of England with no right to self-determination, and any choices that the people of Scotland make about the future of this country are subject to the veto of a Prime Minister from a party which has not won an election in Scotland since the 1950s. He proposes to use the law to trap Scotland into the UK forever, irrespective of the will of the people of Scotland.

This is deeply undemocratic, and politically unsustainable. Its chances of success rest upon the implausible likelihood that having closed down any democratic route to another independence, independence supporters will simply swallow their deep misgivings about another major milestone on the UK’s journey to undemocratic authoritarianism and say, “Well that’s just fine then, let’s give up on this whole independence malarkey,” because people who demonstrably have no respect for democracy have told them that they have made it unlawful because they are afraid of the verdict of the people.

What Tomkins proposes would not generate mere “political noise”, it would create a political earthquake that his precious union would be unlikely to survive. You cannot use the law to patch together a political union that has lost the confidence of the people, it’s like trying to stuff an angry elephant in a bin bag.

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