13 July 2011

Cock-eyed Cochers cocks a snook...

Devolution is "a motorway without exit" to a separate Scottish state. So contended Tam Dalyell. I've long found the Telegraph's Alan Cochrane's lapses into this mode of thinking rather befuddling. What does a Unionist politics look like, if you subscribe to this sort of devolution determinism? If you are travelling on Dalyell's motorway - you may accelerate, decelerate - but cannot u-turn. Onward ever onward you vroom, however unwillingly, with no prospect of changing your direction of travel. Strictly speaking, I suspect he and others like him may well entertain fond dreams of flattening Holyrood and "repatriating" devolved powers to a restored Westminster - but for the foreseeable future, the engine has fallen out of that political project, leaving the old banger wheezing far back on the hard shoulder.  

Many - and I share their skepticism - would write off Dalyell's metaphor as whizz-bang rhetoric to underline his anti-devolution argument, rather than a serious sociological diagnosis that independence is rendered inevitable by the mere existence of a Scottish parliament. But for the black-hearted Unionist who does hold this curious deterministic position, the fatal moment has come and gone. The Union may not have gasped its last, but is certainly lying on its bed of death. Care at this point can only be palliative, all hopes of a cure perishing with the "yes" vote in the 1998 referendum.  For old time's sake, you may strive to keep the patient alive for as long as possible, deferring her dissolution by bloody-minded but purposeless interventions in public life. On this theory, Dalyell and Cochrane and their ilk are reduced to murmuring their Dylan Thomas - "Do not go gentle into that good night, Rage, rage against the dying of the light" - ever more world-wearily. As politics go, this is a macabre business. The perplexity and dissatisfactions of this position were called to mind, hearing Cochrane's response to a recent speech from John Major. The former Tory Prime Minister argued that ...

"Why not devolve all responsibilities except foreign policy, defence and management of the economy? Why not let Scotland have wider tax-raising powers to pay for their policies and, in return, abolish the present block grant settlement, reduce Scottish representation in the Commons, and cut the legislative burden at Westminster?"

Predictably enough, Cochers is appalled to hear such sentiments expressed by a man who once stoutly opposed devolution on the grounds that Scots were "sleepwalking towards independence" and that it represented "a stepping stone to separation".  On Newsnicht, Cochrane sputtered his astonishment: "I found this the most incredible intervention in recent years - months. For John Major to say this, is absolute havers." The BBC journalist who put the piece together styled Major's proposition "moving towards a weaker Union" - a profoundly problematic proposition, baldly to advance. Indeed, it is precisely the Union strengthening qualities of more radical devolved powers which is at issue between these conservative characters. For Major, and Darth Murdo Fraser - and as I understand him, David Torrance - the rationale for embracing a much more extensive, settled and federal devolution settlement is precisely that it will end the "unsustainable" situation we currently occupy, characterised by political instability and the slow "appeasement" of nationalist demands.  Baillie Bill Aitken's appeared in the same edition of Newsnicht, arguing that devolution is a process, not an event.  It is this endlessly parroted phrase that Major is seeking to expel from our political vocabulary, tying down the open ends of devolution into a settled federal structure.

For Cochrane, by contrast, the Calman Commission, Scotland Bill and prospect of much more extensive devolution of powers - are sops that enervate the Unionist soppers without soaking up Nationalist feeling. While I'm sure old Cochers does not count Maximilien Robespierre amongst his intellectual influences, his views echo a speech made by the latter in the Jacobin Club after the King's abortive Flight to Varennes in 1791. Said Robespierre:

"What frightens me is the very thing that seems to reassure everyone. And here I need to be listened to until the end. Once again, what frightens me is the very thing that seems to reassure everyone else: it’s that since this morning, all of our enemies speak the same language as us."

In Cochrane's case, the logic is precisely inverted. What concerns him is that his friends speak the same language as his enemies, not just conceding but adopting the Nationalist political logic of an ever-empowered Holyrood. For Cochers, they do Salmond's work for him and win no appreciable benefit for the Union in the process. For him, any concession is a defeat, weakening the Union. Victory is curbing Nationalist ambitions by bluntly telling us to sod off. For what it is worth, my own feeling is that Cochrane's response is quite wrong-headed and that Major's two propositions, while superficially contradictory, are not incompatible. It is perfectly plausible to hold (1) that you believe devolution is and was a "a stepping stone to separation" but (2) if voters reject argument (1) and you end up with devolution, preserving the Union may behove finding ways to stabilise the devolution settlement, to extinguish, or diminish the demands of self-determination.

Devolution was never just about relocating decision-making powers from institution A to new institution B after all. Politically, it doubtlessly empowered the SNP, transforming them from a very small handful of MPs in a very large House of Commons to a party of primary opposition, then minority government in 2007 and a majority in 2011. More broadly, it created the possibility of a distinct public sphere in Scottish politics around Holyrood. Although this outcome may not have been foreseen by those voting on the Scotland Act 1998, it ought to have been clear that devolution would displace Westminster's monopoly on "official" political life and fundamentally alter the character of - and in the short to medium term, strengthen - the SNP.  As a Unionist, one can conceiveably oppose the emergence of a distinct Scots political agora, and nevertheless recognise that once such a public space exists, think about ways to reconfigure the powers exercised by the institution and its creatures, better to serve your aim of preserving the Union. Cochrane, by contrast, seems to see no such distinctions.  Which, given his lapsing into the Dalyellesque logic discussed at the outset, is something of a curiosity.

Discussing the same topic of "the Conservatives, the Union, Scotland and the British State", Gerry Hassan notes...

"The Tories are moving on the union, doing what they do best, being pragmatic and conciliatory on the surface, while doing all they can to maintain the union which is central to their politics and identity, and just as crucially, maintain the bastardised nature of the British state. It won’t work, because constitutional change has consequences for the political centre, but don’t write off the Tories genius at reform to postpone more fundamental reform. They have been at it a rather long time." [My emphasis]

For what it is worth, I think Cochrane is right on the Calman process and the current Scotland Bill. It stabilises nothing and settles nothing. An unprincipled trimmer's expedient rather than a settling and principled architecture for the future, mute but determining, the Scotland Bill's rank ad hockery is fundamentally driven by a policy of preserving the political centre and tinkering with the periphery. Gerry is absolutely right. It is the reflexive, transforming implications of federation for the British political centre which will make it intolerable and unworkable. A federal politics requires a federal mindset that is basically incompatible with the Westminster status quo and its cherished constitutional nostrums.  Either the old pieties of the "pragmatic", sovereign constitution must yield, or federalism cannot prosper. Contra Dalyell, there is nothing inevitable about Scottish independence, once devolution is conceded. However, if independence is achieved, I'm convinced that it will be owed in no small part to the refusal of British politics to countenance its own transformation.

15 comments :

  1. Lallands - the time for the 'Major' discourse was in 2007 when the Scots fired the first warning shot across Westminster's bows.

    Instead Labour and the rest assumed that four years later Labour hegemony at Holyrood would automatically return as the Scot's learnt the error of their ways as Brown and Darling squeezed the Holyrood pocket money and the SNP's social democratic politics fell to bits in the face of Westminster's unremitting neo-liberal pursuit to sell even their 'Granny aff their barra'.

    Sadly for them it turns out we Scots are not as stupid as Westminster think us and now with questions being asked about pay outs to Scottish plod to blow criminal investigations, the millions of pounds West Coast Councils pour into the coffers of Glasgow's organised crime, the admitted infiltration of Strathclyde polis by said crime gangs while numerous 'iffy' activities by Glasgow Labour politicians have gone uninvestigated by Strathclyde polis.

    Leaves you wondering just what does the Union have to offer Scotland apart from bankruptcy both fiscal and political...

    ReplyDelete
  2. hector mcglashan13 July 2011 23:36

    Is independence not a bit of a misnomer these days?

    A state that doesn't control its own interests rates isn't independent.

    If Scotland leaves the UK its interest rates will be determined by either the Bank of England or the ECB.

    The reality is that the majority of Scots want to remain in the UK, and that's unlikely to change any time soon. Meantime the power and influence of the EU grows year on year.

    Other than satisfying some deep seated dislike of the English, which, let's face it, is what motivates a lot of the nationalist bandwagon, I just can't see what would be achieved by leaving the UK.

    On another matter: is the Scottish Sun still backing the SNP?

    ReplyDelete
  3. GrassyKnollington14 July 2011 09:29

    Ah Cochers. Ian Hamilton has a theory that this big beardie, couthy sounding Scotsman who is a nationalist in denial.

    He does sound increasingly hatstand when talking about the SNP so I'm inclined to agree with Ian.

    Maybe time to embrace your inner nat Cochers, seems everyone but you can see it.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "the current Scotland Bill. It stabilises nothing and settles nothing. An unprincipled trimmer's expedient rather than a settling and principled architecture for the future, "


    LPW, how would you categorise a two- or-three-question referendum in terms of principle?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hector Sweden controls its own interest rates.
    Alarm bells rang in the mid nineties when they realised well educated, but unemployed, young people were leaving in droves.
    This has been the accepted norm in Scotland for centuries.
    It's possible to break with tradition.

    ReplyDelete
  6. James Morton14 July 2011 12:58

    Ah the poor unionists are all in a tizzy.

    What to do about the Union?

    The truth which seems to have escaped them (largely because they are as Mr Massie declared, on the wrong side of History and happy to be there)is that they played the role they had not intended to play.
    By fighting devolution, and then trying to limit it in a desperate bid to hold the Union together, they actually helped Scotland onto that path. What is left now? Escalation. Now they are trying to suggest new powers over finance. Not large powers, not full financial independence, just a little bit. A plan at appeasement to keep the Union together, just like Major and his taking stock exercise and giving back the stone of scone. The gap from each step to the next would have seemed small and inconsequential, but each one led to the next and the next. Each time having to give up a little bit more control and finding that they had little to offer in defence of what they still control. The Unionists (at least on the tory side of the equation, I have no idea what New Labour are about these days) are infact doing what Gerry Hassan has said but in reality, rather than maintain the nature of the state and preventing the break up of the UK, they are becoming a conduit through which the break up will evolve. Slowly and incrementally, but moving forward nonetheless.

    So they hide behind what crumbs of comfort they can find. The silent Majority that didn't vote and an opinion poll thay they think is immutable, written in stone and cannot change.

    Who do they turn to for counsel? Yesterdays men like Major, who did more to destroy the Conservative vote in Scotland than Thatcher...and she did quite a lot of damage.

    ReplyDelete
  7. GrassyKnollington14 July 2011 13:03

    hector mcglashan wrote

    "Other than satisfying some deep seated dislike of the English, which, let's face it, is what motivates a lot of the nationalist bandwagon"

    come on now Hector. This is Peat Worrier. We expect a more sophisticated and subtle style of trolling than that........

    ReplyDelete
  8. I think the motorway with no exit analogy is broadly correct. The direction of travel is pretty well set. The only to do a U-turn would be to argue that the Scottish Parliament should give up some or all of its powers and not the most unionist of Scottish politicians would argue that!

    But the fact that the motorway only goes in one direction doesn't inevitably mean that we will arrive at destination independence. The wheels could come off our bandwagon and we could find ourselves stalled. Or we could take some time out, at Harthill perhaps, for coffee and doughnuts on the way. Or perhaps it will just take an eternity to get there as we chug along in an old Ford transit van.

    I am toying of building up now to an SNP/Chitty Chitty Bang Bang analogy whereby everyone thinks our vehicle is a joke but really it can fly but maybe not. I might save that for a later day.

    I like the whole road/car analogy though.

    ReplyDelete
  9. In reply to Braveheart...

    "How would you categorise a two- or-three-question referendum in terms of principle?

    The simple answer is - that depends which principles one entertains! That will not, I suspect, satisfy you - and fair enough. You mean from a Nationalist perspective of some stripe?

    ReplyDelete
  10. LPW "...The simple answer is - that depends which principles one entertains! ..."

    are you suggesting the principle is a flexible concept?

    If so, why your earlier strictures on the Scotland Bill as "...An unprincipled trimmer's expedient .."

    If principle is not fixed, how can anyone or anything be "Unprincipled"? And how can a flexible and unfixed "principle" be trimed?

    ReplyDelete
  11. Braveheart,

    My point was that different people have different principles. I'm sure that you and I differ in the sort of principles we'd want to see enshrined in the government in these islands. A federal-minded Liberal Democrat clearly has different perspectives on this, than an inveterate Tory, thirled to preserving Westminster in its present form. The Liberals seem to have lost their direction in these matters, abandoning a federal vision for something which is undoubtedly an unprincipled trimmer's expedient.

    I concede, I may have slighted such Tories in the piece by describing their approach to the Scotland Bill as unprincipled. After all, in constitutional terms, a classic Tory approach is interest ameliorating expediency. Although some might baulk at the idea of describing this idea as particularly principled - it does follow its own logic.

    To return to the specific of your question, for my part, I've never been shy about admitting that amongst pro-Nationalist opinions, there are significant differences on these issues of principle. That is what I meant, when I said it depends on what principles you entertain.

    ReplyDelete
  12. @LPW "My point was that different people have different principles".

    My point is that honest people have the same principles.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Braveheart,

    I'm afraid that's a ridiculous proposition, particularly from the perspective of honesty and experience of the world. One of the basic features of meaningful discourse and debate is the idea that decent people can reasonably differ on an amazing range of things. Your logic leads to just the sort of thing I'm sure you deplore - being called a false-consciousness-dominated quisling because you happen to be attached to the Union and would defend it. All my experience tells me that honest people can honestly disagree about their principles and I can't say I care for the implications of your theorising, that would suggest otherwise.

    ReplyDelete
  14. LPW, I think we may be in agreement ... at some level...

    you say;

    "...All my experience tells me that honest people can honestly disagree about their principles and I can't say I care for the implications of your theorising, that would suggest otherwise.."

    I don't disagree that people can disagree. But it makes me wonder why you called the Scotland Bill ..

    "...An unprincipled trimmer's expedient rather than a settling and principled architecture for the future, "..."?

    Surely if the "principle" being fought over is breaking the union -v- the other "principle" of "independence", then decent people can indeed disagree on what's best to do ...

    The Scotland Bill is one group's idea of the best way forward for the country, and just because it's not "independence" or some other political aim doesn't make it unprincipled...

    As you say "..honest people can honestly disagree .."

    Unless you think the whole Scotland Bill is a "lie", in which case that takes us to a different level altogether...defining what is a "principle".

    ReplyDelete
  15. Braveheart,

    On...

    "The Scotland Bill is one group's idea of the best way forward for the country, and just because it's not "independence" or some other political aim doesn't make it unprincipled..."

    You can rest your mind at ease, I certainly wasn't trying to align categories of principled/unprincipled with Nationalist/Unionist. I'd refer you to what I said above about the inveterate Tory's approach to constitutional change. You might well argue that a reform conceived as a sop to Nationalist electoral successes isn't really driven by any principle - save expediency. Certainly, it is couched in a broader (Unionist) framework of political commitments, its goals ones of preservation and leaving the Westminster "centre" of UK politics untransformed. Basically, things get knottier if one seeks to enshrine expediency itself as a principle. I wouldn't be keen to do so, but then, I'm a damned Scotch metaphysician.

    ReplyDelete