“If Scotland votes no, Westminster’s claim to undivided authority over the country? Dead and buried. After a no vote we’ll have a system of government as close to federalism as you can have in a nation where one part forms 85% of the population.” – Gordon Brown
The danger for the ongoing momentum of the Yes movement is that it infuses the General Election and the wider body politic of Westminster with more credibility than it deserves. Each day parties are announcing their roster of new candidates and battle will commence in the new terrain of multi-party politics and the most open election in decades.
As the new model Tartan Army gets set: Natalie McGarry (Glasgow East); Philippa Whitford (Central Ayrshire); Michelle Thomson (Edinburgh West); Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh SouthWest) amongst them, how is the new political landscape being viewed?
Rather than being grateful for the emergency blood transfusion that the candidates and leaders of the SNP, Greens and Plaid will bring to the debate, writing today, the Guardian’s executive editor, Jonathan Freedland, seems seriously freaked out (‘This pre-election jockeying could threaten the United Kingdom itself’):
“It’s a dispiriting sight. While the big forces that threaten Britain stretch far beyond these shores – an ailing global economy, climate change, violent jihadism – the nations of these small islands are turning against, not towards, each other. One of Labour’s more thoughtful politicians is watching this with alarm. If a country is defined as a community of shared sympathy, he tells me, then “at the moment politics is pulling those sympathies apart rather than pulling us together”.
Who is the Mystery Man?
I don’t think it’s TOO hard to figure that out, given Freedland’s frequent lavish praise on Kirkcaldy’s newly weaponised former PM. You may stifle a chuckle at the framing of the debate though. ‘If only those pesky Celts thought like Team GB then we’d be able to smite those Jihadists’ is a great way of ignoring the role that precisely that closed-thinking brought to a reckless foreign policy disaster, or, for example how Tory-Labour light-touch financial regulations created the playground for the super-rich and banking fiasco.
A ‘community of shared sympathy’ is one of those vague New Labour neologisms hanging around like a malodorous concept of political dithering. It’s only a focus group away from ‘pooling and sharing’.
In similar mysterious tone Freedland continues suggesting: “the UK has always been a union of four sometimes competing nations – but we’ve not been honest about it. Ours has been a “crypto-federalist” system, one that hides our true nature from ourselves.” We really have entered the twilight zone here with the rearing of the spectacularly misplaced idea that Britain has, is, or ever will be ‘Federal’ in nature.
It’s worth remembering what Federalism actually means. It is: ‘A system of government in which power is divided between a national (federal) government and various regional governments. Federalism is a system whereby the states are not merely regional representatives of the federal government, but are granted independent powers and responsibilities. With their own legislative branch, executive branch, and judicial branch, states are empowered to pass, enforce, and interpret laws, provided they do not violate the Constitution.’
Firstly we’re supposed to be a union of nations, not regions. Scotland’s not equivalent to Idaho. Second, the UK’s massive asymmetry – with one of the nations hugely different in numbers to all of the rest, makes such an arrangement ridiculous. Third, the idea of federalism is that the constituent parts offer a check and a balance on the central government. No such relationship does or ever will exist in Britain. Fourth, it’s clear from the Smith Commission process that devolution is something tolerated by the British State, not rooted in political culture. Fifth, without a written constitution, the tensions and complexities of any federal structure is meaningless.
Federalism, is, like ‘Home Rule’ and ‘sustainability’ one of those now catch-all phrases that has been drained of it’s meaning after long periods of abuse. This allows it to be brought up over and over like some kind of Pavlovan treat, always, but never quite achievable.
It fits beautifully with Labour’s recent messaging:
‘We never promised Home Rule’
‘We have delivered Home Rule’
‘We are going to deliver Home Rule’
But the true nature of how Freedland, and you suspect most of the London commentariat view the process, is revealed beautifully when he says: “Arguments between Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland that used to be buried are now being played out in public. For voters it’s probably a disconcerting experience, like a gathering of the extended family where you discover demanding relatives you only dimly knew you had.”
It’s a wonderful moment to realise that what you or I might think of as part of the democratic process that we have just been pleaded to stay part of, is, in fact, a ‘disconcerting experience’, and that rather than part of a ‘wonderful family of nations’ we are dimly-recollected distant relatives.
It’s a remainder of the wonderful quote from John Major back in 1991 when the Tories were opposing even the most basic forms of devolution:
“The Scots just feel left out of things up there, and I have a good deal of sympathy with that. I ought to go there much more often and so should the rest of the Cabinet. If they see us around more, they’ll feel a lot less cut off”.