It could all have been so different

Prior to the historic vote approving a new independence referendum in the Scottish Parliament yesterday (Tuesday 28 March) I, like many others, wrote to the MSPs who purport to represent me urging them to respect the Scottish Government’s mandate; honour the democratic will of the Scottish electorate; and reject their parties’ calls to deny Scotland’s democratic right of self-determination. The responses I received from representatives of the British parties at Holyrood were unsurprising, but no less deplorable for being only what I expected.

Common to the feeble rationalisations of their craven conduct was the customary nonsense about there having been an undertaking that the first independence referendum was a ‘once in a generation/lifetime’ event. I say nonsense, not only because there never was any such undertaking, but because there could be no such undertaking. It not only didn’t happen, it couldn’t happen. The incessant whining about this mythical ‘promise’ betrays a fundamental failure to comprehend the nature of the democratic right of self determination. A right which is vested entirely in the people of Scotland. A right which cannot be limited, constrained or withdrawn by any politician, political party or elected administration.

Comments were made by leading figures in the SNP to the effect that the referendum was a special opportunity for the people of Scotland. In describing how special this opportunity was, the words ‘once in a lifetime’ or similar were used. At no time was it suggested that this was a unique or unrepeatable event. It was simply a case of politicians deploying a common figure of speech in order to emphasis the importance of the vote.

And even if there had been an assurance from Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon that the referendum was to be a one-off, that assurance would have been meaningless. Because neither they nor anyone else has the authority in relation to an inalienable right. Even as Scotland’s democratically elected leaders, neither was entitled to place any conditions or constraints on Scotland’s right of self-determination. How much less right, therefore, does the unelected British Prime Minister have to forbid the exercise of Scotland’s right of self-determination?

Similarly, nobody voted in the first referendum to relinquish their right of self-determination. The argument that the people of Scotland made a choice and must abide by it for all time and in all circumstances displays an ignorance of democracy even more profound than the failure to grasp the concept of self-determination. The whole point of an inalienable right is that it can no more be forfeited than it can be removed. Nobody can lawfully renounce the right of self-determination any more than than they can lawfully vote themselves into a condition of slavery.

Article 1(2) of the Charter of the United Nations explicitly affirms “the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples”. It might well be argued that, under the terms of the UN Charter to which the UK is a signatory, the requirement for permission from Westminster constitutes at least an unreasonable and possibly an unlawful interference in the exercise of the Scottish people’s right to determine the form of government best suited to their needs.

What cannot sensibly be argued is that the people of Scotland somehow lost – even temporarily – the right of self-determination when they voted No in 2014. Democracy is a process, not an event. It is plainly an affront to any concept of democracy to insist, as many Unionists do, that the democratic process be stopped just because they got the result they wanted. These Unionist might well retort that nationalists want to keep on voting until they get the result they want. Of course they do! That is no more than democracy in action. The right to decide – to make an informed choice – necessarily implies the corollary of a right to reconsider in the light of new information. It cannot be otherwise and still be considered democracy.

The British parties’ campaign to deny the people of Scotland a voice is, not only undemocratic, it is definitively anti-democratic. That they continue this effort despite Holyrood having voted decisively in favour of a new referendum merely adds disrespect for Parliament to contempt for democracy and disdain for the sovereignty of the Scottish people on a lengthening charge-sheet.

There is, however, a sense in which the first independence referendum really was a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’. In many way, the stars were favourably aligned for the restoration of Scotland’s independence back then. At the very least, and despite the deplorable behaviour of the anti-independence campaign, there remained the possibility that the archaic, dysfunctional political union could be dissolved with a minimum of acrimony and a certain amount of goodwill. In November 2013 I wrote,

A No vote on 18 September 2014 will have consequences. The outcome itself and the all too easily envisaged response of the British state to that outcome will alter an already unsatisfactory political union in ways that must inevitably have a deleterious effect on the social union that we all value so much.

Vote Yes to save the Union

Who can deny that the imperious, domineering, contemptuous attitude of Theresa May’s ‘One Nation’ British nationalist regime has altered the union and deformed the democratic space within which the constitutional debate is conducted?

Who can deny that the shrill, irreverent and all too often infantile behaviour of the British parties at Holyrood has been deleterious to all political discourse in Scotland?

Who can deny that, in a test of loyalty which asked them to choose between Scottish democracy and an increasingly obscene and irrational British nationalism, MSPs from the British parties chose the latter. They chose to forsake Scotland for the dogma of ‘The Union At Any Cost’.

It should never have come to this. It could all have been so very different.

Now, regrettably, we must recognise that the ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’ we had in 2014 is gone. Independence is as inevitable now as it was then. But it cannot now be a graceful or an amicable process. Our best bet may be to get it over with as quickly as possible.

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11 thoughts on “It could all have been so different

  1. Ian

    Strong words, well spoken.

    I feel slightly disappointed that we have not (IMO) succeeded in making similar robust responses to a wider audience. The deployment of ‘fake’ opinions polls to generate the “the people don’t want one” mantra is risible, yet they are still getting away with it.

    Since when, within our parliamentary democracy have we given mere opinions polls more weight than the wishes of an entire electorate, specifically as expressed in May 2016. The use of opinion polls by the unionist side is absurd and yet the media (obviously) and ourselves (meekly) haven’t been clear enough in rebutting this.

    To put it bluntly and directly, 1000 people on a Panelbase or BMG database have zero authority to determine the future of Scotland. Those suggesting that they do (e.g. May, Mundell, Davidson) are not behaving democratically.

  2. chris avery

    Peter, enjoyed your recent talk in Blairgowrie, this question is not directly in point to your article but i hope you know the answer…

    If the UK negotiates a settlement with the EU which includes a deal to allow the EU to enter Scottish waters for fishing, for eg, is Scotland then bound into the UK/EU terms of settlement even if we remain in the EU as a separate entity thereafter or do we renegotiate?

    1. Peter A Bell Post author


      The hope and intention, of course, is that we should never be in that position. Whatever Theresa May says, it is essential that we vote Yes before any Brexit agreement comes into force. Having voted Yes, the EU will no accept that the UK is negotiating on our behalf.

      In the scenario which you set out, I can’t see any way that Scotland could be bound by an agreement entered into by a state of which it is no longer a part. Re-negotiation would be required.

      But this again highlights the necessity of declaring our withdrawal from the UK before any Brexit deal is formalised. Ideally, we would be looking to start from something as close to the present situation as possible. That, after all, is what the people of Scotland voted for last year.

      It really doesn’t matter how you come at this thing. It all boils down to the simple fact that we MUST have a referendum before Brexit, and we MUST vote Yes. That way, we have a number of options. Otherwise, we have none. All decisions will be made for us by this malignant, incompetent Tory regime.

  3. Brian Powell

    The question to those who bring up ‘once in a generation opportunity’ is what are you arguing for?
    If they had a cohesive argument they would put that forward rather than just trying the tactic getting the pro-Ind supporters to stop.

    1. Brian Powell

      Tories, Labour and LibDems combined won the No vote in 2014 but they don’t know what they won it for, where they would go with the win.
      That’s their failure.

  4. Robert Graham

    as the title says , “it could have been all so different” all the Unionist side had to do was Honor the promises made , instead they decided to deconstruct with petty arguments and political dogma ways to remove everything that was promised by voting down every single amendment and proposal , with the Labour party in the background refusing to budge on anything it was NO NO we won we won , this short sighted mantra has got us to where we are now , what did they expect ? did they expect the YES supporters to go away .

  5. Abulhaq

    and when independence comes lets ditch the whole outmoded imperial baggage, monarchy, commonwealth and ‘Britishness’. Modern, sovereign Scotland is no place for sentimental attachments.

  6. Pingback: Ignorance and disrespect | Scotto Voce

  7. Martin

    ‘Who can deny that, in a test of loyalty which asked them to choose between Scottish democracy and an increasingly obscene and irrational British nationalism, MSPs from the British parties chose the latter.’

    I’m sorry, but the bias here is astounding. British Nationalism is characterised at ‘obscene’ and ‘irrational’ while Scottish Nationalism is described as ‘democracy’. All nationalism is distasteful and Scottish nationalism is just as unpleasant as the British version.

    1. Abulhaq

      The naivety of your comment is remarkable.
      The Scottish variety can be judged by its track record, not a drop of blood spilt in its name, whereas….

  8. Proud Cybernat

    There was a woman in the USA who won their national lottery jackpot–a “one in a lifetime event” event it was proclaimed. Some years later she won the jackpot again. It is as you say, Mr Bell, a figure of speech to emphasise the rarity of such events. That the sovereign people of Scotlan–through its democratically elected parliament–have voted to have another referendum (to essentially settle the question of which union it prefers when it can now only be a member of one) is democracy in action. A manifesto pledge of such a referendum was presented by one of Scotland’s political parties to the people of Scotland–and they won a landslide victory. Our parliament is an expression of our sovereign will. To attempt to suppress our will in any way is tantamount to a dictatorship.

    Is that really what the UK has become? If the London regime does not respect the will of Scotland’s parliament then it WILL be seen, the world over, as exactly that–a dictaroship.

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