Sunday, 23 June 2013

Harmony in Chaos

They're planning for indifference,
They're talking their own version of the tune.
Standing round in silent queues,
We're fighting for your freedom too,
Because everyone's expecting to be led.
Just close the doors and windows and listen to them argue in your head.
They won't even hear it, harmony's in chaos once again.

                                                                             - Bobby Nicholson

Yesterday I attended the Edinburgh University event at the MacEwan Hall, "The Union: an Historical Perspective - Is it Better Together or Should Scotland say Yes to Independence". The format was a lecture by Prof Tom Devine followed by a panel discussion. The lecture was essentially a distillation of his Emden Lecture [click link for video] given at Oxford University on 11 June, weighted to examining how the Union had survived for 300+ years.

The panel was as interesting for who wasn't there as to who was.  The Yes camp was represented by Blair Jenkins, chairman of Yes Scotland and Margo McDonald MSP, the independent former SNP politician.  The No camp was represented by Ruth Davidson MSP, Scottish Conservative leader and Willie Rennie, Scottish Lib-Dem leader. 

That there was no SNP representation I think was a deliberate, strategic move by Yes Scotland to see the SNP take a back seat for a while. Indeed, Margo hammered home the point that the referendum was not about parties but the people, and that if we voted Yes, it would be up to us to shape the independent Scotland we wish to see.  However, the absence of any Labour representation was rather less explicable.  It was left to Tom Devine to reveal that apparently the former Prime Mentalist, Gordon Brown is trying to hash together some Mega Devo Plus rabbit which he plans to pull from the hat in a few months.

The moderator invited Margo and Blair to outline their vision for an independent Scotland and Ruthie and Willie to outline their positive case for the union. Ruthie chose to wax lyrical about the British Army, harking back to her trip to Kosovo as a 21 year old trainee journalist, but carefully avoiding comment on the more recent misadventures of the British Armed Forces.  Both Wee Ruthie and Willie harped on about size and strength, punching above our weight, seats on the UNSC, G8, power and influence in the world. I really am not turned on by those arguments as I have no wish to punch anyone, above or below my weight.

In terms of Vision looking forward, Willie Rennie wholly voluntarily and without prompting, live on stage, metaphorically took out his Browning 9mm, deliberately took aim at his left foot and fired.  He informed the audience that he wanted to see the Scottish Parliament made permanent, as it is currently a temporary institution voted into existence by Westminster which could just as easily be voted out of existence by Westminster. It seems that in his own time as a one-term wonder in Westminster, he did not learn that there is no constitutional mechanism in the UK to legislate Holyrood into permanence as sovereignty rests with the Crown in Parliament and that sovereignty is absolute. Any future Westminster parliament has the power to do as it damned well pleases, untramelled by putative, previous Lib Dem legislation.

The acoustics were not great and I missed what Ruthie mumbled when asked by the moderator what progress had been made by her Tory Constitutional Commission.  It was Tom Devine who pointed out in no uncertain terms (and I'm paraphrasing here) that if Scotland votes No without any cast-iron guarantees from the unionist parties, Scotland is royally stuffed.  However, in my view, since such 'guarantees' of Jam Tomorrow are worthless no matter how apparently 'cast iron' a politician may make them out to be, Scotland will be stuffed if she votes no. Both Ruthie and the former Prime Mentalist are on a hiding to nothing. If they were really offering the people of Scotland a Jam Tomorrow Devo-Max option, why were they so keen to have it removed from the ballot paper? Because they have no intention whatsoever of delivering.

In terms of prognostication, the rise of English right-wing nationalism, as evidenced by the swivel-eyed loons of UKIP gaining 25% of the votes, and particularly how they fare in the European Parliamentary elections in 2014 was seen as potentially having a major effect on the referendum result as England and Scotland diverge politically.

Margo had made the point right at the start that the referendum and the future of Scotland was a matter for us, the people of Scotland, not the political parties. I was therefore somewhat disappointed that when, at the end of the discussion, the moderator asked for a show of hands: "Do you feel you've been given enough information to come to a decision?" around 2/3rds of the audience raised their hands to the negative iteration of the question.   As well as looking at the raised hands, I scanned some of the faces.  There was almost an accusatory expression directed at the politicians on the panel.  Given the venue and the hosting institution, this was apparently an audience of some intellect and this is the internet age. However, it appeared a lot of people are still looking to politicians for leadership and guidance on this issue.  I find it hard to understand how, after all we've been through, people look to these same Politicians who are among the least trusted professionals in the country for leadership and guidance.

Tom Devine's main point about how the Union had survived was that Scotland survived being in bed with an elephant because the elephant stayed on her side of the bed and Scotland had largely governed herself through institutions like local government and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland from the 1750s to the 1970s. It was the rampaging she-elephant that crossed to our side of the bed in the 1980s that was possibly the beginning of the end for the union.

Although Tom Devine didn't mention it, to me the interesting survivor of our time in bed with the elephant has been the principle in Scots Constitutional Law, famously iterated by the Lord President in Ian Hamilton and John MacCormick v. Lord Advocate (1953), that:
“the principle of unlimited sovereignty of Parliament is a distinctively English principle and has no counterpart in Scottish constitutional law”.
The referendum is about creating our nation built on that principle where We are sovereign, not the politicians. Unlike the Westminster tradition of elective dictatorship parliamentary sovereignty with no written constitution, we will have a written constitution, our contract with our politicians setting out what powers we are prepared to delegate to them and in what circumstances they may use them.  With that sovereignty comes a responsibility not to wait to be spoon fed by politicians, but to educate ourselves so that we are fit to exercise that sovereignty. In the internet age and with our thankfully still existing library services, there really is no excuse.  All you'll get from the politicians will be harmony in chaos.

I'll leave you with Bobby Nicholson's video of his song Harmony in Chaos.

 Edit 29 Jun 2013: Edinburgh University has now published the video of the event. You can view it here.

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