It all comes down to the issue of ultimate power. So long as Scotland remains in the Union, ultimate power will always rest with the British political elite. That power extends to the apparently trivial as well as the obviously vital. Because it is ultimate power, it is ultimately power over everything, regardless of the pretences and deceptions of any devolution settlement.
One aspect of this power is the assumed right to define terms. Theresa May can casually promise ‘full involvement’ in Brexit negotiations to the Scottish Government – and other devolved administrations – secure in the knowledge that she gets to define what constitutes ‘full involvement’. Even no involvement whatever can simply be declared ‘full involvement’; just as May’s lackey, David Mundell, pompously proclaimed that there was ‘general agreement’ on changes to Clause 11 of the EU Withdrawal Bill even though no amendments had even been tabled and no meaningful discussions had taken place.
Promises (vows?) mean nothing. Commitments mean nothing. Words mean nothing – because words can mean whatever the British state wants them to mean. And they can change meaning as expediency demands.
Perhaps the most striking illustration of this power to define is the No vote in the 2014 independence referendum. Initially, a No vote was deemed to be a vote for the status quo. No meant no change. The British government was very adamant about this, stridently insisting that there must be no ‘second question’ that might dilute the meaning of a No vote. Assuming that the anti-independence side would win easily, Unionists wanted a No vote to be a clear rejection of any meaningful constitutional reform.
Until the realisation belatedly dawned that the status quo was, by a significant margin, the least popular option. At which point, the meaning of a No vote started to get increasing fluid until it ended up being presented as a vote for any one of myriad flavours of ‘devo’, up to and including something that was supposed to be indistinguishable from ‘Home Rule’.
What a No vote actually turned out to be was a vote to grant the British political elite ultimate power to define what a No vote meant. Not surprisingly, they defined it to suit their purposes. And have been doing so ever since. Think about that! It’s like handing your unmarked election ballot paper to those in power so that they can put the cross wherever suits them.
If they have the power to define, after the event, the outcome of a constitutional referendum, the British aren’t going to have any difficulty defining terms such as ‘general agreement’ or ‘fully involved’ at their convenience.
It would not be totally accurate to say that No voters gave this power to the British state. Political power is never given. It is taken. It is taken either by main force or by deception, intrigue and intimidation. By whatever means, the British state has taken power that belongs to the people of Scotland. They are not going to simply give it back. We will have to take it.
Important as it is to recognise that only the people of Scotland have the rightful authority to define and constrain the powers of their Parliament, the exercise of popular sovereignty is unacceptably diminished if it does not extend to every area and facet of our politics. It must be made clear that WE decide what constitutes ‘full involvement’.
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