London choosing to ignore the UK’s third largest party will have an impact on indyref2, writes Lesley Riddoch
It has one third of the British landmass.
It has an historic treaty giving it clout within the British state.
It has “the world’s most powerfully devolved parliament”. Supposedly.
Yet the nation of Scotland has no distinctive say over Brexit at all. Not just in EU negotiations about the most important issue affecting Scots since the independence vote, in which we had total authority. But Scotland also has no presence in deciding what happens next, even though our First Minister has outlined the solutions suddenly discovered by others for two years and has visibly tried to coax common cause from Westminster parties who should have been doing that democratic donkey work themselves.
We all understand Britain is a uniquely one-singer one-song kind of democracy, where supposedly powerful devolved legislatures have as little clout as the official opposition. But the determination to side-line Scottish input is fairly jaw-dropping.
Former Tory Minister Nick Boles has come up with Norway Now - the wheeze staying in the customs union and single market. Wasn’t that the main proposal in the Scottish Government’s options paper published in December 2016? Still, who cares. It’s a variant of everyday sexism; “That’s a marvellous idea, Miss Sturgeon. I’m sure one of the men will have it presently.” Except Nicola Sturgeon’s air-brushing from the Brexit debate has little to do with her gender and everything to do with her nationality.
It’s the same story with the forthcoming “Grand Brexit Debate” between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. An opinion poll suggests voters want more shades of opinion included than an hour’s face off between two supporters of similarly unworkable Brexit schemes.
But the names proposed by commentators as “must have” supplements to the debate are Lib Dem Vince Cable, Green Caroline Lucas and the un-elected Nigel Farage. Apparently, the First Minister may be on a side panel – but that’s it. Even though as deputy SNP leader Keith Brown points out; “Up to six options for the UK’s future will be voted on in the Commons on December 11. To fully debate only the Prime Minister’s view and that of the leader of the opposition … would be a severe dereliction of the BBC’s public duty.”
But doubtless this is exactly what will happen. Which raises a few questions. Why are broadcasters are still intent on delivering a two-person debate despite their relative lack of disagreement and the complexity and importance of the subject? Has the business of creating artificially polarised debates become such an ingrained habit that broadcasters can do nothing else and believe voters are scared of options?
Secondly, is it alright to sideline Britain’s third largest party? The BBC says SNP MPs don’t represent the whole of Britain. Why should that remove all broadcasting rights? Ukip doesn’t actually have any MPs, yet broadcasters will doubtless consider their inclusion because they want a good rammy. Somehow rules will be bent to include Ukip’s viewpoint, but not that of Nicola Sturgeon – although she is both the leader of Britain’s second largest party by membership and the First Minister of Scotland, representing the second largest nation within the UK. But her case for inclusion in formal debates regularly fails to find a champion on British TV. Wrong leaves on the democratic line, folks.
Even though, this week the degree of democratic exclusion is set to heighten several notches.
Not only will the House of Commons have a stand off over the government’s failure to publish legal guidance, but two other significant things look set to happen.
European judges in Luxembourg are set to rule on whether MPs can unilaterally vote to halt Article 50. This is a vital component of the People’s Vote, because drafting another referendum will need some time. The case is an excellent example of joint working between Scottish MPs, MSPs and Euro MPs from different parties but was begun by two legally minded parliamentarians – Joanna Cherry MP and Andy Wightman MSP. Yet I’ll be surprised if either gets much airtime, even if their case is upheld by European judges. The Scottish dimension just muddies the supposedly calm waters of British democracy too much. Even though this week will see another unprecedented outbreak of cross-party Scottish cooperation in Holyrood, where a joint statement from the four progressive parties will call for MSPs to reject both a no-deal Brexit and Theresa May’s compromise deal as “damaging for Scotland and the nations and regions of the UK”. In short, Scottish Labour and Lib Dems can go where their British counterparts fear to tread. Yet this move will probably get no network coverage at all.
It seems Nicola Sturgeon could do the political equivalent of throwing herself under a horse at the Derby for the good of British voters and the news channels would hardly notice. This tells Scottish voters a lot about the reality of devolution. Power devolved has indeed turned out to be power retained by Westminster. The UK has turned out not to be a union but a unitary state, where devolved power is retrieved when convenient and no-one but the Conservative Party (representing a minority of voters) gets any say on major decisions over trade and foreign policy. I’ve lost count of the radio and TV discussions in which no question about Scotland’s response to Brexit is even raised. Yet voicing such an opinion sounds naïve at best and whining at worst.
Meanwhile some broadcasters suggest the public is experiencing Brexit fatigue. Does this mean a terrible outcome must be tolerated simply because British parliamentary democracy has evaded, stupefied and bored the public into submission? We should beware these siren voices and remember Iraq where the voices of caution who wanted hard evidence of WMD were cast aside in the rush to action. There is still time to do better, but the role of Scots in formulating a rescue plan will never get the credit it deserves.
Britain is essentially a unitary state, politically incapable of becoming anything else. This is the reality of our constitutional position as revealed by the political stress-testing of Brexit. The question is whether Scots should sail on, regardless of the massive crack now visible, return to shore and forget the escape attempt or look urgently for a brand new vessel.
How the next few weeks are handled will have a massive impact in the forthcoming indyref2 debate.