Westminster and Scottish unilateral disarmament

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by Paul Kavanagh

Some have said that it’s bizarre that Labour and the Lib Dems are not supporting the option of an extra question on the ballot.  The question has yet to be defined, but could be a question which would ask whether Scotland is in favour of what Labour and the Lib Dems claim is their preferred option, extra powers for the Scottish Parliament within the UK.

After all, the Lib Dems are in favour of federalism right?  And Labour politicians keep saying that they don’t like being called Unionists, they want us to think of them as the party of devolution.  Instead Ed Miliband is 100% behind arch-Unionist David Cameron in defence the Union, aided and abetted by the Lib Dem munchkins, as they all trot along the yellow brick road to worship in the Emerald City of London.

But none of this is bizarre at all, not in the topsy turvy world of Scottish politics where the ‘nationalists’ are social democrats in favour of immigration and the ‘social democrats’ support neo-conservative economic policies and US foreign wars.  It’s perfectly transparent what the Westminster parties are up to.  They want Scotland to give up its dalliance with independence, and then they can get back to ignoring us.

The threat of independence is the nuclear deterrent of the Scottish electorate, moreover it’s the only weapon we have.  It’s only when Westminster fears that the Scots might vote with their feet and walk out of the Union that the anti-independence parties pay the slightest heed to the aspirations of Scotland for greater self-rule.  They’re very scared now, which is why we’re seeing such an onslaught of scare stories.  So they want us to unilaterally disarm, to make their nightmare go away.

That the independence threat is Scotland’s only means of obtaining greater self-rule within the Union has been very clear over the past 70 years.  Westminster has previous.  It has a rap sheet as long as a boa constrictor and every bit as reptilian.

In the late 1940s there was no voice in Westminster speaking for Scottish independence.  The sole SNP MP until then had won his seat in a by-election in the closing months of WW2 but lost it in the first post-war General Election, which returned a Labour government.  

But the demand amongst Scots for control over our own affairs was strong nonetheless. By 1950 over 2 million – over half the entire electorate – had signed up to the Scottish Covenant, a polite request to Westminster to grant Scotland Home Rule within the Union.  No petition has ever obtained the support of such a large percentage of the population of any part of the UK.  

However when Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee received the request from the Scottish people for Home Rule within the Union, he rejected it out of hand.  He could do so without any threat to his party’s position.  Labour peer Robert Morrison stated that the matters involved were “much too complicated” to be put to a referendum.  Scotland had to suck it up.  

Home Rule was off the table, and would remain so for 20 years.  It was a painful lesson for Scotland.  You don’t get anywhere with Westminster by being Miss Nice and asking politely.  Westminster only understands threats.

It took 20 years for Scottish Home Rule to force its way onto the Westminster agenda.  It came in the 1970s in response to the massive boost in SNP support as the impact of North Sea oil made Scots question the received wisdom that our country was too poor and too wee to survive without big Uncle Westminster to look after us.  Scotland returned 7 SNP MPs in the February 1974 election which produced no overall majority, and 11 in the General Election in October that year which returned a Labour government.

Panicked by the cries of “It’s oor yle” from north of the Border, Westminster promised the Scots a referendum on a watered down proposal for a Scottish Assembly, which would have had fewer powers than the current Scottish Parliament.  But even this sop to Scotland’s wishes stuck in the craw of the Unionist parties.  

We all know the history of that sorry episode.  The shameful lies of a Westminster government which hid the truth about Scotland’s potential prosperity.  The so-called socialists who ensured that those who abstained in the referendum counted as votes for no change, and were more concerned about Westminster process and Parliamentary sovereignty than Scottish aspirations.  The duplicity of the Conservatives who sought a No vote with a vague promise that they’d offer something better when they returned to power.  Then, as now, “something better” was never specified.  Just vote No, and we’ll look after you, was the promise the Unionists gave us.

The referendum returned a Yes, but failed to clear the artificial hurdle imposed by Westminster.  The General Election of 1979 brought the Conservatives to power, and Scotland entered the long dark night of Thatcherism.    

Again it would take almost 20 years for Scottish self-government to claw its way back into Westminster’s consciousness.  Again it came in response to fears that the Scots might opt for independence.  The democratic deficit of the Thatcher era radicalised a generation, who were determined that we’d never again be subject to the whims of a government with no mandate.  The clamour for change could not be ignored.  SNP electoral recovery and fear of Scottish independence motivated Westminster to take action.

Again the Scots were given a half-baked referendum, when uniquely in history a people were asked whether they wanted their government to have tax powers.  Prime Minister Tony Blair was openly contemptuous, saying the new Parliament would be little more than a parish council.  But Scotland said yes and the new parliament was set up, but not to fulfil the desires of Scots for self-government.  In the words of Labour’s George Robertson, it was to “kill nationalism stone dead”.

Behind the scenes the machinations were in full swing.  The boa constricted.  Holyrood’s complex electoral system was cooked up in a backroom deal between Donald Dewar and Menzies Campbell to ensure that the nightmare scenario of a majority SNP administration could never occur.  (How’s that working out for you Menzies?)  Scotland would forever return a Labour / Lib Dem coalition, which these two Unionist parties could use as a power base when voters in England returned a Conservative government.  For Labour and the Lib Dems it was never about Scotland’s needs and aspirations, it was only ever about their own party interests.  Actions speak louder than words.  

But Labour and the Lib Dems paid the electoral price for taking Scotland for granted.  While Tony Blair enthusiastically went along with the foreign adventurism of the most viciously right wing US administration in decades, and Gordon Brown aped the Conservative adulation of the financial sector in the City of London, Scots grew ever more disenchanted.  

We continued to vote Labour in Westminster elections to keep the hated Tories out, but Labour’s powerful Scottish machine was hollowed out from within.  When the Lib Dems entered power with the Conservatives in 2010, they blew their credibility with the Scottish electorate and now face annihilation.  The decline of Labour and Lib Dem credibility culminated in the Holyrood election last May, when the Scottish electorate gave them a massive kick in the teeth.  Even Labour’s last great bastion, control of Glasgow Council, looks set to collapse in the local elections later this year.

And now we are where we are.  In the famous saying, history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.  Never was it more apt.  The positive case for the Union has achieved mythological status, like the profits in a ponzi scheme it’s always promised but it never arrives.  Instead we are subjected to a barrage of scare stories that would strain the credulity of a 5 year old.  We’re being patronised by hypocrites who think we haven’t noticed that they’re interested only in their own privilege and position.

Yet again we’re asked to trust Westminster and its band of self-serving careerists.  Surrender your threat of independence, and all will be well.  They really do think we’re that stupid.  Westminster believes Scotland is like an illiterate 45 year old virgin who still lives with his mammy because he’s incapable of running his own bath or finding clean underwear.  Vote Union, vote to be treated with contempt.

Would you believe a promise by Labour or the Lib Dems to grant – and note the word ‘grant’, it’s their gift to give, not our sovereign right – unspecified powers for the Scottish Parliament at some unspecified point in the future, after Scotland has voted to remain in the Union?  

That’s the same Lib Dems who solemnly signed up to a pledge to reject student fees in England, yet once in power with their Tory pals did exactly the opposite.  That’s the same Labour party who promised us relief from the Tories in 1997 then went ahead and implemented 13 years of neo-conservative policies under Blair – a trick that Miliband aims to repeat.

Scotland has returned Labour to Westminster for decades.  Even the arch-Unionist Scotsman newspaper admitted that it’s done us a fat lot of good.  Any extension of Holyrood’s powers – if the Unionists do make a firm commitment to devolve specified powers, which they haven’t – is predicated on the notion that England will return a Labour government at the next General Election.  That is by no means a foregone conclusion.  Judging by Ed Miliband’s recent attempts to out-Tory the Tories on economic policy and give “100%” support to Cameron’s pledge to defend the Union, it may very well make no difference.  We’ll get Conservative policies anyway.

By voting to remain in the Union after a referendum dictated by Westminster, Scotland will stand naked and alone.  We’ll have unilaterally disarmed and left Westminster with its power and privilege intact.  The threat of independence will be off the table, and we’ll enter another long dark night.  The boa will constrict around the throat of Scottish aspirations for another generation.  

So here’s what we’ll get if we vote to stay in the Union.  We’ll get an outbreak of smugness that will make that English fitba match in 1966 appear like a model of modest self-restraint.  They will remind us of it at every available opportunity for the next 50 years.  Expect lots of fitba analogies from commentators in the British media, telling the world the Scots have bottled it again.

Labour will continue its bid to become the Tory party Mk II, moving to the right to appeal to the only electorate who count, the handful of swing voters in Labour-Tory marginal seats.  There are no such seats in Scotland, so what the Scots want will continue not to matter.  Vote Labour, get Tory.

The Scottish Parliament will be neutered so that Westminster never again has to cope with the trauma of a referendum organised by the people of Scotland for the people of Scotland.  ‘Subsidies’ to Scotland will cease forthwith, the Barnett Formula will be abolished and we’ll see massive cuts to public spending on top of the cuts we’re already facing.  Scots voted for the Union, they’ll tell us, so it’s only fair that we subsidise London a bit more.  An extension to the London Underground is UK expenditure.  The Union Line will call at Paddington Mundell, New Labour Triangulation, Westminster, and Scottish aspirations will be left in a ghetto at the end of the line, somewhere in Sarf London where the establishment classes never tread.

Do you support devo-max, full fiscal autonomy, or any other extension of powers to Holyrood?  Kiss that goodbye.  Demands for greater powers will be dismissed with a brusque “Scotland voted to remain in the Union”.  Constitutional matters will be dealt with by a commission chaired by an over-promoted Lib Dem who was kicked upstairs to the House of Lords after losing his Scottish seat.  Danny Alexander looks like a shoo-in.  

The commission will make some mild proposals to tinker with irrelevancies.  The proposals will be kicked into the long grass by Westminster, safe in the knowledge that the Scots have unilaterally disarmed and given up the independence threat – the only weapon we have to force them to pay attention to our aspirations.  We’ll have to suck it up.

Westminster has always refused to consider unilateral nuclear disarmament – but that’s exactly what they want Scotland to do.  And that is why we cannot allow Westminster to dictate the terms of this referendum.  They must be resisted by all legal means necessary.