The federalism gambit

Let us be under no illusions about what the Constitution Reform Group’s (CRG) true purpose is with talk of a “federal UK”. Their objective is to contrive a constitutional device by which to deny Scotland’s right of self-determination. Like devolution, this ‘federal’ arrangement is nothing whatever to do with finding an arrangement which addresses the needs, priorities and aspirations of Scotland’s people. It is entirely about preserving the old order and the old ways. It is a survival strategy for vested interests.

If this lot were to get their way, Scotland would find itself in a position similar to that of Catalunya. We would be subject to a constitution which declares the UK to be an indivisible unitary state. A referendum such as we had in 2014 would be illegal under this constitution. Scotland would be left with no democratic path to independence.

Ponder the implications of that for a moment. Consider the inevitable tensions when something approaching half the population is told that they are now to be deprived of the democratic means of achieving their political aims. Think about the reaction when the entire population of Scotland is told that the sovereignty they supposed to be theirs has now been ripped away from them.

Ardent unionists will have no problem with this, of course. As British nationalists they do not question the authority of the British parliament. They have embraced an inferior status as subjects, and are entirely comfortable with sovereignty being vested in a bunch of politicians rather than the people. Just so long as those politicians wave the right flag.

The political union between Scotland and England was doomed from its inception. From the first, it carried the seeds of its own destruction.

Asymmetry – the gross discrepancy in political and economic power that the union was designed to maintain. It was always that ‘Greater England’ project. Power is relative. And the union was always as much about neutralising Scotland as a competing power as it was about enhancing England’s power.

The other ticking bomb at the heart of the union, as conceived and realised by the established power of the time, is the irreconcilable conflict between the concept of popular sovereignty – which is ingrained in Scottish political discourse – and the concept of parliamentary sovereignty – which underpins the British state.

Neither of these mattered so long as the people didn’t have a voice. Or so long as they could be distracted, and bought-off, with various imperialist adventures – invariably involving the exploitation or killing of brown people; or squabbles with other interests looking to exploit and/or kill brown people.

When Scotland declined to be absorbed into ‘Greater England’ and showed a stubborn tendency to retain its own national identity, ‘Britain’ was invented as a unifying ‘brand’ for all of England’s satellites. (We should be clear that in this context ‘England’ refers, not to the whole country, but to its ruling elites; economic, administrative and aristocratic.) The term ‘Britain’ is more digestible than ‘Greater England’. But it is not the name of a real nation. It is the name given to the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state and serve the ruling elites.

Things have changed. We’ve moved on. Scotland’s people have found their voice. The charade of ‘Britain’ could only survive so long as it went unchallenged. Or so long as the challenges could be ‘dealt with’ by the British political system. Now, there is a challenge which cannot be denied; or absorbed; or stifled; or mocked and demonised out of existence. The people of Scotland have found in, and made of, the SNP a political force that carries their will into the heart of the British political system. And while that will is not yet for the full restoration of Scotland’s rightful constitutional status, it is a will to be different. It is a will to do things our way. It is a will to bring more and more of Scotland’s government home and make it answerable to Scotland’s people.

It is a will to empower Scotland’s parliament. It is a will which the British establishment regards as a threat. As it should.

The British establishment has sought deal with this threat in various ways. From the creation of the Scottish Office (now the redundant Scotland Office), through the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament; a plethora of ‘commissions; and endless constitutional tinkering; to where we stand today. It has all been about fending off the day when those fatal flaws at the heart of the union finally tear it asunder. The suggestion of a formal, federal constitution is just another part of this defensive strategy on the part of the British establishment. It is unlikely to gain much traction. And it wouldn’t save the union even if it did.

The union is broken beyond repair. Devolution has run its course – and then some. Federalism is a last-ditch gambit that does nothing to address the core problems of the union. If it did, it wouldn’t be acceptable to the British establishment. And so long as it leaves unresolved the asymmetry and the conflicting concepts of sovereignty, it will never be acceptable to that growing part of Scotland’s people who are aware of the situation.

Independence is inevitable, because any constitutional arrangement which succeeds in terms of the aims and objectives of the British state necessarily fails in terms of the aspirations and priorities of Scotland’s people. And that includes ‘federalism’.

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