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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

State of the Union address II

Whether we like it or not, there is a referendum in a year’s time when we will get the opportunity to be part of history like no generation of Scots before us. 
This is not just another abstract argument in an abstract and dismally detached political realm. Indifference to politics in these islands is entirely understandable, if not essential to sanity. Our sensibilities have taken a hammering in the last few years and our political classes seem to work tirelessly to ensure we have as little reason to be interested as possible. But this is the exception that proves the rule. Indifference is probably the wrong call. One is likely to either miss out or be caught unawares.

This is as binary as it gets. Neutrality isn’t tenable — and it isn’t on the ballot, so it’s hypothetical. And why on earth wouldn’t we take an interest when our nationality is up for grabs? The smugly aloof dismiss the significance of this at their peril.

It’s all very well saying that we shouldn’t get carried away, but if this is what we are being asked, it’s perhaps worth considering the options. Staying put certainly seems palatable to no one. In any case, I see no reason not to be carried away if it is to somewhere I would like to go. It certainly beats walking and you’re less likely to get wet feet.

And of course, it’s debatable that a status quo which means only what a sitting Westminster government wants it to mean forms a solid foundation for stable continuity. It’s not so much constitutional change that is being sought, it’s a meaningful constitution, ideally one that both enshrines and limits the writ of State and lays out a set of shared values. The UK has nothing resembling this and, quite avowedly, no intention of meaningfully addressing this shortfall, so if stability and continuity is your thing, the Union might not be the safest bet. Anything could happen at any time here. History suggests it probably will.

Perhaps surprisingly given our famed sense of irony, almost uniquely amongst developed countries, the UK has no written constitution, merely an arbitrary accumulation of convention and precedent supported by parliamentary laws open to repeal at any time by a Commons majority of one or even unilateral ministerial decree, an undefined privilege that sits uncomfortably with modern notions of the democratic nation state.
By its own lights, the status quo is an inherently volatile beast, not a benign guardian of national stability. The theory – completely unwritten, mind - is that this allows it to evolve and accommodate change, but perhaps centuries of normalised incest have taken their toll; one man’s genetic advance is another’s mutant, after all. 

Maybe drafting some inviolable rules is a good idea after all — it’s not as if the basics have changed much over millennia. And of course, as nobody is entirely sure what the status quo is, its acolytes find it hard to defend it without bumping into old fixtures and fittings they didn’t know existed.
In a rare break with tradition, I won’t be the only getting carried away. If one is inclined towards believing every last word on the BBC without choking occasionally, interest in the idea of Scottish independence and all it implies may yet to have gathered momentum on this small Atlantic archipelago, but the prospect of the United Kingdom ceasing to be is not going unnoticed around the world and isn’t likely to.

The UK’s self-celebrated and jealously guarded standing on the World Stage, where we apparently punch above our weight while casually telling countries rapidly overtaking us how to drive ensures that the eyes of the world, yet again, are watching us.

In recent centuries, the combined might of Scotland and England have not always enjoyed hindsight’s sympathetic glow. Ask the Australian Aborigines, first on the list for alphabetical reasons only. Scots take as much responsibility for the more egregious deeds of empire as our neighbours, so there is limited mileage for either side here. Less said the better, though I’m not actually riddled with post-colonial guilt anyway. The Mongol hordes of the early Middle Ages managed to wipe out at least 10% of the human race. I don’t see their descendants prostrating themselves in shame. Let’s not beat ourselves or each other up over this.

Despotism is an art with a long history and the British don’t even make the G20 of evil. Nonetheless, it would be foolish to believe that there aren’t countries out there who will be viewing the prospect of the break-up of the UK with anything less than outright glee. Many more won’t exactly miss it. The Union doesn’t travel well. Independence has been a trend in Europe for some time. And despite 300 years of union, two very distinct historical political entities have, quite proudly, completely failed to homogenise.

Even if we put aside the gangland pay-offs that led to the 1707 Treaty — not Act — the UK was a construct born of expedience on both sides, not desire, a bit like the coalition presently navigating it safely to market-obsessed penury and oblivion.

Today we see two countries with irrevocably divergent ideas about how they wish their societies to sustain who since WW2 have repeatedly dumped each other with governments they didn’t elect. Devolution was supposed to answer Scotland’s democratic deficit, but in doing so, it merely shipped the deficit south. Scottish Labour MPs not only have the cheek to vote on issues that do not affect their constituents, they have burdened the English with a coalition government very few like which is held to ransom by a minority partner nobody with a survival instinct admits to liking. England voted for a thumping Tory majority, as it usually does and Scotland hasn’t since 1955.

Nothing in any proposal from London is even going to attempt to address this. The Union may have served its purpose once upon a very different time, but Scotland and England now stymie the will of the other’s people at every turn. There are arguments aplenty today. One less is eminently achievable.

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