Thursday, June 14, 2012

Falklands / Malvinas : It's the wrong referendum, Gromit!

I may think Argentina is flogging a dead horse with its endless pursuit of sovereignty over the Falkland Islands, but as a Scottish nationalist I can hardly blame anyone in Buenos Aires who might be feeling a tad cynical about the UK government's reaction to the news that the islands' own government will be holding a constitutional referendum. After all, there does seem to be a slight inconsistency here, both in tone and substance...

London's reaction to the news that Scotland has decided to hold a referendum on its constitutional future :

'Decided'? What do you mean 'decided'? Decisions are things that happen in London.

(Pauses for brief sulk.)

Oh, if you absolutely must. But you'll certainly need our guidance in framing the question - you Scots can barely string a coherent sentence together when left to your own devices. And why on earth do you need to leave time for a proper debate? Why not hold the vote next Tuesday?

London's reaction to the news that the Falkland Islands have decided to hold a referendum on their constitutional future :

What a splendid idea! Next year, you say? Oh absolutely, the longer people have to think about a decision they've already taken, the better. And you certainly don't need our help sorting out the question - whatever you come up with is bound to be first-rate.

Marvellous stuff, chaps! The world must hear your voices!

* * *

Except, of course, that it isn't such a first-rate idea, and in fact it's a massive missed opportunity. Comparisons have been made with Gibraltar's referendum on sovereignty ten years ago, but that misses the point entirely. The Gibraltar vote wasn't purely a stunt. Spain might not have been any more receptive to the principle of self-determination than Argentina is likely to be, but Spain was not really the target of the exercise. At the time, the British government was attempting to go over the heads of the people of Gibraltar and reach a deal on joint sovereignty. The referendum result troubled enough consciences in the UK to effectively kill that idea stone dead.

There is no such target for the Falklands referendum, because the UK government is not trying to sell the Falklands down the river, and there is absolutely no prospect of it doing so. The BBC's John Simpson pointed out the other day that most Latin American countries have now been converted to the curious principle that anything short of an Argentinian colonisation of the islands would represent a continuing 'relic of colonialism', and suggested that this new consensus might have been enough to exert pressure on the UK to give up sovereignty if it hadn't been for Argentina's recent drift away from its Western orbit towards a more pro-Venezuela/Cuba stance. But that simply isn't the case - London wouldn't have given an inch on the Falklands issue no matter how many countries were lined up in Argentina's corner. That's partly because the islanders' case for being able to retain the British link if they so choose is watertight (and I say that as someone who loathes British imperialism), but it's mainly because the 1982 military victory has become so important to Britain's self-image. It wouldn't have been any kind of psychological trauma to betray the islanders prior to 1982, but it certainly would be now.

So if the referendum isn't going to impress anyone in Argentina, and if it doesn't even need to impress anyone in the UK, and if we all know what the result is going to be anyway, what is it actually supposed to achieve? The islanders do have a problem to resolve - but it isn't the one Gibraltar faced in 2002. They needn't worry about being stripped of their right to remain British, but they do need to worry about bullying from neighbouring countries that could make day-to-day life in the Falklands increasingly problematic. So an intelligent use for a referendum would not be to ask a question we already know the answer to, but instead to open up a meaningful debate about how the constitutional relationship with the UK could change in such a way as to finally remove the 'colonial' label, which is what provides cover for the bully-boy tactics.

Realistically, the Falklands are too small to be an independent state, which leaves two potential ways forward. The first is full integration into the UK. It's too often forgotten in this debate that the Argentinian jibe about the anachronism of Britain retaining South American territory could also apply with bells on to France, which actually retains a significant portion of the South American mainland. But the difference is that French Guiana has been scrupulously decolonised under one of the options specified by the UN, with the territory being fully integrated into the French state. It's a bizarre and probably unhealthy situation that the European Union has a seemingly permanent land border with Brazil, but few seem to question it. A more sensible solution would be a free association agreement of the sort that the Cook Islands have with New Zealand. Under this model, the Falklands would become sovereign but would freely enter into an agreement to allow the UK to handle its foreign affairs and defence. In practical terms there would be little change in the islands' governance, but it would have a huge impact in terms of entrenching the islanders' place on the moral high ground.

But it seems the referendum will do nothing whatever to further that necessary debate. And it won't do anything else either. What a waste.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Man of a thousand faces, every one the same.

Our old chum Tom Harris (affectionately known to some as "Tom4Scotland", "Admin", "Devo Max" and " is I, LeClerc") has returned to a familiar theme on Twitter -

"The Tories used to be the only party in Scotland that opposed devolution. Now the SNP is the only one that does."

This notion that the SNP are currently 'opposed' to devolution, but used to be in favour, is a rather curious one. As far as I can see, the SNP's position now is entirely the same as it was two or three decades ago - namely that devolution is infinitely preferable to direct rule from London, but that independence would be better still. By definition, therefore, if Tom believes that this stance can somehow be characterised as 'anti-devolution', the SNP must also have been anti-devolution in the 1980s and 1990s - including, of course, when they campaigned alongside Labour and the Liberal Democrats for a Yes vote in the 1997 devolution referendum!

But Tom isn't entirely alone in adopting this sophisticated line of thinking. The legendarily free-thinking and non-partisan journalist Kevin Maguire has for some time now been routinely referring to the pro-independence campaign as the "anti-devo campaign". (Seriously, I'm not making this up - he actually calls it that. This is an actual thing that he does.)

So as a public service, I thought it might be interesting to compare the stances of the "pro-devo" and "anti-devo" campaigns (as defined by Harris and Maguire) in respect of a number of key policy areas, and whether or not they should be devolved from Westminster to Scotland. The results are somewhat startling.

Pensions :

"Pro-devo" campaign believes pensions should be...RESERVED TO WESTMINSTER.

"Anti-devo" campaign believes pensions should be...DEVOLVED TO SCOTLAND.

Broadcasting :

"Pro-devo" campaign believes broadcasting should be...RESERVED TO WESTMINSTER.

"Anti-devo" campaign believes broadcasting should be...DEVOLVED TO SCOTLAND.

Abortion law :

"Pro-devo" campaign believes abortion law should be...RESERVED TO WESTMINSTER.

"Anti-devo" campaign believes abortion law should be...DEVOLVED TO SCOTLAND.

Employment law :

"Pro-devo" campaign believes employment law should be...RESERVED TO WESTMINSTER.

"Anti-devo" campaign believes employment law should be...DEVOLVED TO SCOTLAND.

Hmmm. It may just be a coincidence, but there does seem to be a pattern emerging here - the "anti-devo" side seems to be considerably more keen on devolution than the "pro-devo" side is. And I don't know about you, but I find that life is never more thrilling than when I stumble across a new and impenetrable paradox like that.

So what's going on? It may be that we need look no further than the notoriously subtle differences between standard English and its little-known offshoot Harris-speak. I gather that in Harris-speak, the word 'devolution' has a considerably narrower meaning than the one we English-speakers attribute to it. It's instead an exclusively 'good' word, in the same way that 'honey', 'children', 'kitten', and 'unelected peer' are all good words. And just as English-speakers recognise a clear distinction between good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, and between good bacteria and bad bacteria, Harris-speakers recognise a distinction between Good Devolution and Bad Devolution, with the word 'devolution' itself applying only to the former. This reflects a widespread belief in the Harris culture that Bad Devolution represents a frightening 'going beyond', a kind of 'anti-devolution', unleashing forces that will destroy the Goodness of devolution. Therefore the Harris-speak meaning of 'devolution' categorically excludes any power devolved to Scotland that is baleful or inappropriate, such as control of our own natural resources. Instead, this type of devolution is covered by a unique term that has no English counterpart and is generally held to be untranslatable : "I Can't Believe It's Not Independence".

This is clearly problematical for native English speakers, who are used to the much simpler idea that devolution refers to any power devolved from Westminster to Scotland within the framework of the United Kingdom. It would of course be easier if there was a straightforward way of spotting the difference between powers that fall within the Harris-speak definition of 'Devolution' and those that are 'I Can't Believe It's Not Independence' - but I'm afraid I can't help you there. It's a bit like the 'three-in-one' concept of the Holy Trinity - it does of course make perfect sense that the devolution of health should be considered Good and that the devolution of broadcasting is Bad, but we mere mortals will never understand why. And it is futile to try. We must simply accept, For Thus Is It Written.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The intrinsic value of constitutional referenda

After all the Jubilee 'excitement' last week, I speculated that it would be a deeply traumatic experience for some royalists if they ever had to go through a referendum on retaining the monarchy, in spite of the likelihood that they would win handsomely. But I've been thinking about that some more, and it occurs to me that the mere fact of a referendum itself would mean - in a sense - that the monarchists had already lost. After all, the principle they hold most dear is that the monarchy is a fact of life, something that everyone accepts is 'out of bounds' for political discussion. The minority of dissenters who do exist can be rationalised away by pretending that they are much smaller in number than they truly are (the media help enormously in that respect), and are killjoys with perhaps just a hint of mental instability about them. As a royalist put it to me after I condemned the shouting down of a republican protest : "Of course these people have a right to protest, but the rest of us have a right to point out they are plonkers." Really? Wanting a say over who is your Head of State in the 21st Century makes you a plonker?

A referendum would change that narrative forever, despite the likely result. Elizabeth Windsor would be our Head of State not because forces that mere humans dare not interfere with had willed it so, but because we as a people had decided by democratic means that she is preferable to the alternatives. OK, that process would be ad hoc and less than satisfactory, but it's in the nature of any democratic decision that it can be revisited in the future, and everyone would know that. Just think how different the coverage of the Jubilee would have been had such a referendum taken place over the last few years. It would have been unthinkable for 'historians' to go on TV and treat the people as passive (albeit uniformly appreciative) spectators of a grand, ongoing, centuries-old story that the royals are free to shape for themselves. It would have been unthinkable to exclude all anti-monarchist views on the grounds that the crown is an 'apolitical' institution which everyone must unite around. There would have had to be time devoted to the views of the minority of people who voted against the political choice of monarchy, and there would have had to be sober analysis of how the propaganda value of the Jubilee spectacle was being used by the monarchy to win favour with a people who were now demonstrably its democratic masters.

To some extent, the independence referendum will have a similar intrinsic value, regardless of the outcome. Although independence is plainly not regarded as "out of bounds" for the democratic process, that is a relatively recent development, and even now the principle of self-determination is not universally accepted - there are still neanderthals like Alastair Campbell who believe that Scotland can quite legitimately be held captive within the UK if the English don't want us to go. So even if the worst happens and there is a No vote, the referendum will be a confirmational moment, one that will represent a defeat for those who would much rather file the 1707 treaty away as some kind of 'eternal union' that the Scots as a people cannot reconsider at a time of their own choosing.

One parallel with the monarchy debate is that there are still some people out there (mostly but not exclusively south of the border) who interpret opposition to the British union as a form of 'immaturity'. A few years ago, there was an item on Alan Titchmarsh's ITV show about independence. Titchmarsh reacted to Angus MacNeil's arguments with an impressively varied repertoire of incredulous facial expressions, and then wrapped up by saying with an exasperated air "let's see if we can all get along for the rest of the programme, shall we?". 'We', of course, referred to the happy British family - or rather a family that would be happy if it wasn't for the children throwing temper tantrums and electing SNP governments. That mindset will certainly be challenged by a referendum campaign that accords independence parity of esteem with the 'happy family' fantasy.

Another parallel is that there are many institutions which treat the goodness of British national unity as a 'given', and don't believe that this in any way detracts from their political neutrality. Regardless of the outcome, the referendum process will force those institutions to make a long-overdue choice - they can be pro-union, or they can be politically neutral, but they can't be both.