THERE are days when you think the wheels are coming off the Westminster cart completely.
Listening to BBC Radio yesterday I heard a Tory MP accuse the Westminster Government of complacency in the way it had failed to prepare for “adverse outcomes” in the Scottish and European referendums.
Bernard Jenkin – chair of the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) – suggested Theresa May’s Government better catch a grip (my words not his) before the second indyref and learn from Westminster’s repeated failure to plan for any but its own preferred outcomes.
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Of course it was just one fairly outspoken MP speaking truth to power -- but it was a contribution that mattered. Not because anyone inside Number 10 is listening but because it has given everyone else a whiff of the disillusionment that runs rife inside the so-called “Mother of Parliaments”. According to the PACAC report on referendum fairness: “As well as a clear question, the outcome … must also be clear. There should be more clarity and planning by the government holding the referendum, so there is less of a crisis of uncertainty if they don’t get the answer they want.”
So to avoid the “crisis of uncertainty” the UK is currently experiencing thanks to a chaotic Brexit, the UK Government should set out the case for Scotland staying in the UK before the next independence referendum and should set out a planned route for Scotland to leave the Union if there’s a Yes vote next time – and that should be a case based on practicality not Project-Fear-fuelled hysteria. So will Theresa May listen to this polite, well-argued warning from her own side? Will she heck.
Two years ago, her predecessor David Cameron had his knuckles rapped by the Commons Public Administration Select Committee over the conduct of top civil servants during the indyref. The committee accused Sir Nicholas Macpherson, head of the Treasury, of endangering the civil service’s hard-fought reputation for neutrality by publishing advice to ministers warning against a currency union with Scotland in February 2014.
The MPs said: “The only purpose [for releasing his letter] was to use the impartial status of a permanent secretary to give authority to the advocacy of a political argument. Sir Nicholas Macpherson’s advice should not have been published. Its publication compromised the perceived impartiality of one of the UK’s most senior civil servants. [The] decision to publish will have unintended consequences for advice given to ministers on future major issues – including referendums.”
Now this may seem a lot less important than yesterday’s Radio Scotland GERS rammy featuring indy-supporting economics Professor Richard Murphy.
But the comments by Bernard Jenkin and his committee cut straight to the heart of the condition that’s slowly strangling the British state. It’s not inequality, unfairness or even delusions of grandeur – it’s chronic complacency.
Really — how is Westminster complacent?
To paraphrase Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Let me count the ways ...
Firstly, there’s the franchise.
Indulge me for a moment with a bit of history.
The Great Reform Act of 1832 enfranchised just five per cent of male voters in Britain because it enfranchised landowners and very few folk owned land. Indeed that’s probably why this “great” reform was enacted – it changed virtually nothing. Compare and contrast with little Norway whose 1814 constitution did exactly the same thing – it enfranchised all male landowners. But widespread landownership there turned 45 per cent of Norwegian men into voters overnight. That’s probably why the Norwegians have the second oldest written constitution in the world still in existence – why would the majority repeal a constitution that put them squarely in charge of their country and made it impossible for small, wealthy Oslo-centric cliques to micromanage their democracy?
In rotten-burgh-run Britain though, with just five per cent of men voting, it was a very different story. A few wealthy men and vested interests could run the entire country from London without moving muscles – except to visit their country seats.
For a century this thin thing has been called democracy in Britain. And the even thinner thing it served has had the temerity to call itself the Mother of Parliaments – even though less self-serving, less complacent and more truly modern nations all around us have spent the last century entrenching democracy deeply into public affections by devolving power to national sub-states and by using proportional representation. In Norway, for example, they’ve used PR since 1919. It has made a vast difference to the way they think and act.
In Norway, folk presume votes must have equal value. They presume negotiation and compromise is a good thing – indeed PR was brought in to head off dissent when the newly formed Labour Party polled 30 per cent of the vote yet gained only a handful of parliamentary seats.
A century with such a democratic outlook has created a society that can think and plan ahead and decide to store, not squander, oil wealth. Election turnouts of 80-90 per cent have produced governments that command respect and cross-societal support. This social solidarity was evident in the defiant words of then Norwegian premier Jens Stoltenberg after the Breivik attack – “we will meet this attack on democracy with more democracy” – and last week in central Stockholm with the low-key but moving mass rally celebrating Swedish democracy and multi-culturalism in the face of a terrorist attack.
That is democracy.
A country whose nations are ignored during vital negotiations; a country whose government has 100 per cent control with just 25 per cent support from the electorate; a country where most parliamentary seats have been “safe” for decades and some since the days of Queen Victoria – a country like this is not democratic.
Yet no UK Government, including Labour, has seen fit to reform, modernise, or rethink the way Westminster works. Sure there has been devolution. But power devolved is power retained – retained in London at the very epicentre of complacent Britain.
So of course the Westminster government had no plans to deal with a Yes vote in 2014 or a Leave vote last year. It’s the way they swing. Of course they learned nothing from either experience and have tried to crash through all democratic procedure to conduct catastrophic Brexit negotiations in secret and entirely on their own terms. Of course it was no part of Commons procedure that stopped them, but the act of a determined lawyer acting outwith the parliamentary process. And of course Bernard Jenkins and his committee will be entirely ignored as Westminster gears up for the second independence referendum.
The British political machine can act in no other way.
It cannot consider PR. It cannot consider federalism. It cannot contemplate a different arrangement for Scotland in Europe. It cannot let members of parliament applaud. It cannot think long term. It cannot share power. It cannot modernise and it cannot contemplate any way but what’s ae been.
That’s why indyref2 is inevitable.
And that’s why many of us want to make sure iScotland works in a totally different way.
Complacency thy name is Britain.