The Twilight of the Westminster Model: Scotland, Europe and Referendums
Open Democracy, September 9th 2010
The SNP minority government under Alex Salmond has finally accepted political arithmetic and retreated on its promise to hold an independence referendum before the May 2011 Scottish Parliament elections.
At the same time there is to be an AV referendum on the same day as devolved elections – something the Electoral Commission has already made a previous ruling against (1) – on a policy no one supports, as well as a future Welsh devolution referendum.
Now Daniel Hannan, Tory MP and freethinker has announced a new campaign – called the EU Referendum Campaign (2) – campaigning for a vote on ‘In’ or ‘Out’ of the European Union. It is not clear whether this is just a campaign calling for a vote in principle or, as is more likely, a vote for pulling out the European Union altogether.
As Peter Hoskin put it on ‘Spectator Coffee House’, ‘referendums are now hardwired into the political mainstream’ (3). This is both right and wrong. Hoskin is right something is shifting, but lets remember the ‘political mainstream’ has only held one UK-wide referendum in its history: on the renegotiated terms of Common Market entry n 1975 – two years after Ted Heath took the UK into Europe with no plebiscite.
Yet, something is moving. One change is that the voodoo world of parliamentary sovereignty and Westminsterism is slowly and unceremoniously coming to an end. Thatcher and Blair took these notions to levels of caricature and parody: late Westminsterism era hyper-activity and centralism intervening at a micro-level across practically every aspect of society.
Thatcher and Blair directly weakened parliamentary sovereignty, Westminster and the integrity of the British state, and at the same time – led to unintended consequences which we will only begin to understand long after they have left the stage. The late New Labour era of numerous political scandals – from ‘cash for honours’ to the squashing of the Serious Fraud Office investigation into BAE Systems culture of corporate kickbacks, to the shock of a political nomenklatura caught in the expenses scandal – has yet to be fully felt and understood.
There was an equivalent of a popular uprising and revulsion against the Orwellian scale of this. And one dimension of change here was that the slow weakening of the mantra of parliamentary sovereignty was exposed for the time warp mysticism it is, and as a result the popular belief in a politics of popular sovereignty came centrestage.
The consequences and tensions of this should be underlined. The British political classes are still gripped by the fanaticism of Westminsterism and parliamentary sovereignty, but in its leading, enlightened sections – such as the Cameroon Conservatives – they know they are on thin ice. The voters – have long abandoned the Hogwartsland magical world of faith in Westminsterism and parliamentary sovereignty. Instead, across the UK there is a powerful, implicit sense of popular sovereignty; that power lies and comes directly from the popular will not parliamentary mumbo-jumbo.
Then we come to the AV referendum. This can now be seen as classic Cameron-Clegg ‘modernisation’ – looking both ways at the same time. Part appealing for renewal with the allure of future democratisation. Part consolidating the old system with change that is not too fundamental or far-reaching but harks back to when British chaps used to know how best to govern the world; the promise then to India or Egypt was always democracy and ‘civilisation’ at some distant point on the horizon; Britain’s political class still haven’t lost their imperial impulse (even excluding wars)!
The Salmond Referendum Shuffle
Then there is the Scottish situation. The SNP’s entire raison d’etre is about statehood and independence, and tactically advancing this through an independence referendum.
The Nationalists have long known that they don’t have the votes to win a majority in the Parliament. Wendy Alexander, briefly Scottish Labour leader nearly gave an opening with her ‘bring it on’ moment.
This has suited the SNP who lack a majority in the Parliament and know they lack a majority in the country; instead they had hoped once they lost a vote in Parliament to claim the high democratic ground against their unionist opponents.
It was never that simple. Independence is not that high an issue with voters. SNP supporters will say neither was devolution pre-Parliament. The difference is that devolution under Thatcher and Major became increasingly interconnected with ‘bread and butter’ economic and social issues; independence has so far failed to do this. The coming public spending savaging – estimated at 5.9% cuts of £1.7 billion in 2011-12 – will be potentially aided by the ‘Calman cuts’ (4) – which would produce Scots public spending cuts comparable to a Polish post-Communist ‘shock therapy’ – may change this.
This leads into difficult terrain. The SNP are now talking of making independence a rallying cry at next May’s elections. And the party has plans for a multi-option referendum on independence and ‘devolution max’ on one side and the limited change of ‘devolution lite’ (Calman) on the other. That seems too simple and complicated at the same time. When Scotland has its independence vote – it has to be a simple Yes/No vote on one question – which would stand up to international scrutiny and produce an unambiguous result.
There are controversies such as whether it is in the power of the Scottish Parliament to even hold a vote. Matt Qvotrup, a respected constitutional expert, has made the case that the First Minister could call a referendum vote through a Scottish Statutory Instrument (SSI) of the Parliament, but this would be even more controversial and seen as undemocratic, bad politics (5).
Peter Jones, no friend of the SNP, has argued that ‘the national conversation’, ministerial advocacy of independence for the last few years, and detailed civil servant work on the area, has changed Scottish politics. He writes:
For the best part of four years, independence has been moved from a fringe topic of interest only to the committed to a more central place. (6)
He then makes the over-statement on independence that ‘Scots have been forced to think about it much more deeply than they have done before’ and ‘the unionist parties have been compelled to come up with an alternative strategy’. By this he means Calman; but I think Calman is a response and tactical manoeuvre in reaction to the SNP, not ‘an alternative strategy’ for a reformed union – and one that may spectacularly backfire on them.
Joan McAlpine responding in the next day’s ‘Scotsman’ disagreed with Jones from a pro-independence position, and quoted a senior Nationalist politician saying that ‘unionists who welcomed the move saw it as evidence that the SNP had at last become ‘house-trained’ and were working within parameters set by the Establishment’ (7).
She makes the case that the SNP shift from a ‘referendum to deferendum’ is one which could backfire in the party; and also combine with concerns in the SNP about a party which seems to be content in office to be seen to be ‘governing well’ and ‘managerial’.
Meanwhile, the Nationalist administration still invokes opprobrium its opponents. Jeremy Paxman introducing Alex Salmond on ‘Newsnight UK’ talks about the dropping of independence as the end of ‘shaking off the English jackboot’ (8), a language of scorn and dismissal, while Iain Gray, Scottish Labour leader, allows at every opportunity his utter contempt for the SNP and Salmond to show through. Gray’s opinion poll ratings are on the floor – with 9% of Scots supporting him as their choice for First Minister next year (the same level of support for Tory Annabel Goldie) versus 31% for Salmond (9) – but Gray may find himself in office next year.
The SNP matters because of their ultimate goal of Scottish statehood and independence. The first Alex Salmond SNP administration has been a decent and relatively popular one, but it has not been a transformative one. It has set out to not make enemies, particularly in institutional Scotland, and has not attempted a governing or movement strategy of change. The first would see the SNP in office create a number of alliances – for example with the labour and trade union movement, while also picking a number of challenges – with the extended quango state to take one example. And the second, would see thought and effort going into a ecology of self-government agencies and bodies. Instead, the SNP is left isolated, trying via a ‘safety first’ approach to win people over to radical change by reassurance.
The shift of the SNP from the politics of the possible neverendum – the unionist nightmare of one referendum vote followed by another until a pro-independence majority emerged – has been replaced by the politics of the never-referendum – where an independence vote does not happen in the immediate future. That’s how it looks at the moment, although things could change after the election and the cuts begin.
The SNP have proven they have the competence to govern, but they need a radical imagination and zeal if they are to change Scotland and achieve independence. That ultimately is about more than the tactics of whether you bring an independence bill to the Scottish Parliament in expectation of defeat. On the other hand, the unionist parties and institutional establishment of Scotland have not come to terms with the depths of the multi-faceted crisis of Britain: of its politics, democracy, state and economy. This goes to the heart of what Britain is and what the union is for.
The old Westminster British political order is broken and unfixable. British public opinion has moved dramatically beyond its arcane assumptions and conventions. Radicals in all parties and none realise the extent of the crisis; that’s why Daniel Hannan’s campaign for a EU referendum is so timely and the sort of thing which could catch the spark of popular disconnection. Scottish politics current stalemate is not an enduring ceasefire, but merely one more skirmish in the long revolution and campaign for self-government.
1. Gerry Hassan, ‘AV Timing Betrays an Accident Prone and Centralising Government ’, OpenDemocracy, July 28th 2010, http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/gerry-hassan/av-referendum-coalition-problems-and-electoral-commission
2. EU Referendum Campaign, http://www.eureferendumcampaign.com/EU_Referendum_Campaign.html
3. Peter Hoskin, ‘In or Out?’, Spectator Coffee House, September 8th 2010,
4. Andrew Hughes Hallett and Drew Scott, ‘Calman Critique’, Go Lassie Go, n.d. 2010, http://joanmcalpine.typepad.com/joan_mcalpine/calman-critique.html
5. Matt Qvotrup, ‘Could or Would the Scots Vote To Go It Alone?’, The Herald, July 1st 2010, http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/guest-commentary/could-or-would-the-scots-vote-to-go-it-alone-1.1038547
6. Peter Jones, ‘Referendum loss doesn’t mean defeat’, The Scotsman, September 7th 2010, http://news.scotsman.com/politics/Peter-Jones-Referendum-loss-doesn39t.6516254.jp
7. Joan McAlpine, ‘SNP independence gambit has downsides’, The Scotsman, September 8th 2010, http://news.scotsman.com/opinion/SNP39s-independence-gambit-has-downsides.6518866.jp
8. Newsnight, September 8th 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00tpsys/Newsnight_08_09_2010/
9. Ian Swanson, ‘Labour leads but is Iain Gray Ready?’, Edinburgh Evening News, September 7th 2010, http://edinburghnews.scotsman.com/opinion/Ian-Swanson-Labour-leads-but.6516774.jp