By Gordon McAllan
The claims and counter-claims of the opposing camps in the Scottish Independence debate have become very familiar – we must be almost word-perfect by now. It’s a bit like those primitive computer Ping Pong games. And we know where the Pong is coming from – the cynical attempts by the Better Together PR machine to manipulate our thinking by “presenting the facts” as they would have us believe. Well, that campaign was always about going nowhere, it is now going nowhere, and by now understood for what it is, it is a wearisome, whinging, spent force, which will offer opportunist sweeteners during its final-days’ death throes.
So are there any new insights? Well, as you would expect, the energy, creativity and far-sightedness are with the Yes movement. In that spirit, if you haven’t met him before, let me introduce you to Walter Bagehot. Now I can’t really do that, since he’s been dead for 137 years, but let’s have a look at why he was, and remains, highly-regarded as a political journalist and thinker.
In 1867, Bagehot published his best-known work, The English Constitution (note in passing, The ENGLISH Constitution, but we’ll let that be). In this, he examined and set out, in full explanation, how the Westminster-based government of Britain works. He is generally credited by defining the operation of British government, the world’s most powerful imperial, colonial government, and he praised much of what he found – endearing him to the many who had a lump in their throats at what they regarded as The Mother of Parliaments.
Bagehot correctly highlighted that the British government, astonishingly, rested upon an unwritten constitution. Not a scrap of a sentence, let alone a paragraph or two, detailing the right of Westminster to govern us, or the rights of any British citizen. Our present-day Westminster government, Commons and Lords, exists by mere habit and repute – “tradition”, as the sentimental would have it. Three hundred years of intricately-detailed laws have by now been enacted by a Parliament which itself has no written basis!
If we could warm up Walter Bagehot and bring him back to review our Westminster government process to-day, he would find almost all of it very familiar: the pomp and ceremony of its opening and the Queen’s Speech; the stage-managed procedure of debate, members complying almost automatically with their Whips’ instructions, Readings of Bills, review by the Lords – most of this is unchanged. He would certainly notice the late-20th Century innovation of a committee system and would probably commend it. He would remark, without a doubt, scathingly, about the absence of good oratory. And he would be astounded, extremely perturbed, to discover that Devolution had awarded Scotland its parliament, Wales its assembly and Northern Ireland its path towards restoring its measure of self-government, but that England had been accorded no such right, or facility! So alert to the way Westminster operates, he would immediately and with force of reason argue that, unchanged, Wsetminster cannot govern Britain and England, without major change.
Before we dismiss Walter Bagehot, however, as a toadying supporter of the then British form of government – in most respects, the Westminster government which dominates our lives to-day – let us look more closely. If you remove the rose-tinted spectacles from those who acclaimed his support for Westminster and look carefully at what he said, his thoughts make very interesting reading, in our own pre-Independence context:
Considering the limited lifespan and effectiveness of governmental systems, he argued:
“The whole history of civilization is strewn with creeds and institutions which were invaluable at first, and deadly afterwards.”
My own contention is that Westminster is no longer capable of serving the people of Scotland (or many parts of England, but that’s for our cousins there to debate). Over its centuries, it has made some great decisions and too many lousy ones. It is riven with personal and corporate ambition and vested interest, extending to conspicuous and belatedly-proven corruption. Change in policies is driven mainly by the determination of incoming governments to reverse the policies of its predecessors (though Labour’s loyalty to several Thatcherite notions is remarkable) and by the need to reward its (mostly unseen) backers. It is profligate, corrupt, wasteful, sluggish, with a colossally-heavy Civil Service. It continues to behave with outdated ceremonial and colonial-style self-belief. And it lacks the authority of a responsible constitution. For much of the time, it does not represent and respond to the will of the people of Scotland. If we in Scotland cannot do better than that, there’s something very badly wrong.
“It is often said that men are ruled by their imaginations; but it would be truer to say they are governed by the weakness of their imaginations.”
The bleak and blurred horizons offered by the strange bedfellows of the “No” campaign prove the point. In marked contrast, the “Yes” movement, often fired by the energy, light-heartedness, vision and enthusiasm of the Scottish cultural awareness, post-Devolution, looks forward to an honest, pragmatic, hands-on future, in a wee country in which we, our children and the generations to come will do ourselves fairly, and proud – our way.
“One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea.”
That’s why we are being told by Alistair (the man who, with his next-door-neighbour, presided over the worst financial catastrophe in British history), Johann et al that we had better crawl back into our grey flannel nightshirts, huddle in the familiar gloom, give up these silly notions of bringing a new integrity and direction to Scotland, and let Those Who Know Better continue to make decisions for us. They just don’t get it, there’s no joy, no exhilaration in their future Scotland – and they are scared stiff of losing control of the present, tawdry, hopelessly-outdated and inefficient system, the only one they know, and which has made them what they are.
“The greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do.”
Exactly. And in a few days (or, if necessary, in a very few years, for what those of us who favour Independence for Scotland have begun, will not end until our aim is achieved), we will have that deep and thrilling satisfaction and responsibility. The “No” harpies have been saying we can’t. Just watch us.
Aye, that Mr Bagehot knew a thing or two.