Friday, 12 September 2014

Thoughts on Scottish independence and bad governments

A definition of the legitimate democratic state which I think might be useful is the following: the legitimate democratic state is the biggest unit in which the people can accept the legitimacy of the government making bad decisions.

For what it's worth, I despise this Tory government and all its works: more than its policies, I hate the way it tries to play on the idea of an underclass and the policies it promotes on that basis, such as the welfare cap and the bedroom tax, which serve no real purpose other than to stir up support for the government.

But, I accept that the government was democratically elected, even though I did not vote for it, and I accept its right to enact all these horrible policies.

Why do I accept this government's legitimacy, even as I deny completely the correctness of its policies?

Because I am British.

Four years ago, a large proportion of those people entitled to vote did vote. A large-ish proportion of those people voted for the Conservative Party, 421855 of them in Scotland. A further proportion of them voted for the Lib Dems, tragically, including 465471 Scots. Leaving aside the fact that our electoral system is disproportionate, the government we have now is a democratically elected one. The government is supported by a majority of the House of Commons (and, for the first time in a long time, the parties comprising it were voted for by a majority of the voting public). So I have to accept it.

Would I accept this government, if, instead of an English prime minister, we ended up with, for example, a German prime minister? (Assuming that the UK and Germany voted for a common democratic parliament, etc.)

No. As much as I love Germany, its culture, its people, its way of life, and its political system, I am not German. I am not a member of the German demos. As such, I do not feel that, on a political or democratic level, decisions made by Germans should apply to me, at least when I am not living in Germany.

Would I accept the government making decisions I disagree with uniformly if it was led by a Scottish prime minister?

Of course, without any hesitation.

This is because Scotland is not a foreign country. Scotland is part of my country, the United Kingdom. My demos includes Scotland and the Scottish people.

If Scotland was terrifyingly right wing, and a terrifyingly right wing government led by a Scot depended on Scottish votes to survive, I would grumble. I would protest. I would agitate and educate. But I would not decry the government on the basis of its Scottish leadership and support base: I would decry it on the basis that it was terrifyingly right wing.

Because I am British. Britain is my country. England is the part of the country where I happen to live.

In fact, again for what it's worth, England is not really the part of the country where I live. I live in London, a global, multicultural city vastly different from huge swathes of England. The differences inside England are mind-boggling. Newcastle has so much more in common with Glasgow than it does with Chipping Norton. (for that matter, Glasgow probably has much more in common with Newcastle than it does with Aberfeldy)

The reason I am annoyed about the Scottish independence referendum is that the Yes side, and particularly its left-wing supporters, fail to say that what they are actually promoting is old fashioned blood and soil nationalism.

Yes, an independent Scotland could be a socialist paradise. Though, given that we live in the real world, probably not.

But that's missing the point quite spectacularly.

The question that the people of Scotland have to answer is not whether Edinburgh or London can better protect the NHS, or Scottish pensions, or create better tax rates. The decision to make in relation to economic policy is not between Edinburgh or London; it is between Labour or Tory, or for those fed up with the two party system, any number of minor parties.

The question that the people of Scotland have to answer is 'do they accept the legitimacy of English politicians to make criminally bad decisions affecting them?' (accepting the limitations on the power to do so legitimately created by devolution). For me, the reverse question is a no brainer: of course I accept the legitimacy of Scottish politicians to screw up my life. Clearly for a large proportion of Scots, the answer is no. That makes me sad, but there it is.

But the Yes campaign has to be honest. This is a question about whether Scottish people feel politically only Scottish, or whether they feel politically Scottish and British. Whether they accept English (and Welsh and Northern Irish) people as part of their demos. When supporters of the Yes campaign talk about 'we', their 'we' includes only the Scots. My 'we' includes the Scots. The Scots do not constitute, at least in a political sense, a separate 'we'. (Even if, quite clearly, they are a geographically, culturally and historically separate 'we')

Phrasing the question in that way may not have been fruitful for the No campaign, given that a large majority of Scots clearly do think of themselves as a separate 'we' in the political sense. But it is the choice at hand. The question as put to Scots in this campaign has been: how can 'we' get the best deal for 'us'? For the No campaign, the Union is only a means to an end: security, job opportunities, and so on.

But that is not the question. Neither is 'should we have more left wing government', which is in any case not guaranteed in an independent Scotland which 60 years ago voted Tory with an absolute majority and may again in 60 years time. To the disappointment of non-democratic socialists, politics changes -you can't rely on the right wing never getting in again, in this country or in any country.

A constant refrain from the Yes campaign is that Scotland didn't get a government it voted for (during the 80s and now). Although that somewhat ignores the 916155 Scots who voted for Thatcher in 1979 and the 751950 Scots who voted for Major in 1992, not to mention the 887326 Scots who voted for the coalition parties four years ago, it's a fair point. But that is democracy. The North East didn't get a government it voted for either. Neither did my bedroom.

A riposte might be 'you, as an English person, did get the government the English people voted for.' Yes, it is true that English people outnumber Scottish people. We are more likely to get a UK government the plurality (though nowhere near an absolute majority) of English people vote for than Scottish people.

We are also more likely to get a government that the people who live outside London vote for rather than one voted for by those who live inside it. As someone who lives in London, this makes me sad: certainly UKIP might be less likely to do well if only Londoners could vote.

Phrased the way I've put it, the Yes campaign might win by a landslide: most Scots feel more Scottish than British. (It is worth noting, however, that the majority of No voters in the latest ICM poll said that that they were voting No due to attachment to the wider UK).

But it is the fundamentally honest position. I am a (North) Londoner, a Southerner, an Englishman. And I willingly submit myself to the lunacies dreamed up by people from Croydon (though with some reservations), the Oxfordshire countryside, Birmingham, Leeds and, yes, Fife.

The Scottish people are essentially deciding whether they want to possibly be subject to whatever craziness I come up with, because I too am from the United Kingdom. Because I believe in this small island on the edge of Europe staying united, I hope they do. But let's please be honest that that is the choice.

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