Thursday, June 14, 2018

This may seem impossible, but the UK government is even less committed to the Sewel Convention today than it was yesterday

David Mundell's statement to the House of Commons today was extraordinary.  It wasn't simply that he failed to strike a conciliatory tone or offer any path towards compromise.  It wasn't simply that he repeated his unconvincing justifications for the UK government's unprecedented breach of the Sewel Convention.  He actually went a step further than any UK minister had ever gone before by unilaterally changing the terms of the Sewel Convention, thus leaving the Scottish Parliament utterly defenceless against any future attempt by the UK government to further reduce its powers or abolish it altogether.

As I understand it, until today the UK government at least accepted that the Sewel Convention precluded it, in "normal" circumstances, from legislating on devolved matters without consent.  Its excuse for breaching the convention on this occasion was that this is a one-off exception in circumstances that are not "normal".  But today Mundell insisted that the convention allows (indeed "requires"!) the UK government to legislate without consent whenever the Scottish Parliament has been asked to consent but no agreement is reached.  Essentially Sewel Mark II as set out today is a rapist's charter: consent need not be obtained but merely sought.  "My client took every reasonable step to obtain the woman's consent, your honour, but regrettably she was being stubborn."  There is no longer any requirement for circumstances to be "abnormal" for a refusal of consent to be ignored - future breaches could in fact become fairly routine.  (The way Mundell would frame it is that circumstances are automatically deemed to be "abnormal" whenever the Scottish Parliament withholds consent, thus setting up an almost comical circular argument that deprives the words "normal" and "consent" of any meaning.)

I would suggest this has enormous implications for the next independence referendum.  Personally, I've never believed it's likely that any UK government in anything like the foreseeable future would seek to abolish the Scottish Parliament outright.  But it doesn't matter what I think is likely, it only matters what the public think is plausible, and after the events of the last 72 hours, a lot of soft No voters will now have entirely rational doubts about just how secure Holyrood's foundations really are.  If the next Yes campaign presents the choice as being between independence and no Scottish Parliament at all, that may resonate in a way that would have been unthinkable in 2014.

With almost every move they make, the Tories are idiotically weakening their own hand in any referendum campaign.  They're putting all their eggs in the basket of preventing that referendum taking place before the current mandate expires in 2021.  That's one game we mustn't help them with.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

12.06.18: The day the calling of a pre-2021 independence referendum became inevitable

Huge respect to Ian Blackford for taking a stand at Prime Minister's Questions and sending the message that the unprecedented breach of the Sewel Convention that occurred yesterday, with the mass-scale stripping of existing powers from the Scottish Parliament, was a sufficiently serious matter to warrant the disruption of the flagship occasion in the House of Commons.  It was blindingly obvious that John Bercow was advised by his clerks that Mr Blackford had the right to immediately move a technical vote on the House sitting privately, which would have interrupted PMQs by around fifteen minutes.  Indeed, Bercow initially seemed to concede that point by appealing to Mr Blackford to wait until PMQs were over, but then, as he so often does, he made the rules up as he went on to save face and decreed that the vote would have to wait even if Mr Blackford didn't back down.  He then ended up expelling Mr Blackford from the chamber, prompting the entire SNP parliamentary party to walk out in solidarity - leaving a huge gap in the benches that would have brought home to viewers just how many seats the SNP actually won last year.  Shamefully, Bercow then let his anger (and his true colours) show by making a number of fatuous British nationalist propaganda points, such as that it was a great shame that SNP MPs who had questions down on the order paper would not now be able to ask them - as if a couple of twenty-second questions followed by the usual sneering replies from Theresa May would have somehow made up for the shameful scenes of yesterday, when powers were removed from the Scottish Parliament without a single Scottish MP being allowed to speak.  (No bending of the rules from Bercow to stop the disgraceful fillibustering yesterday, you might note.)

The reason why it was necessary for Mr Blackford and the SNP parliamentary party to send this symbolic message is that the London establishment and media just don't seem to have received the memo yet.  We hear a lot about the get-out clause in the Sewel Convention that the consent of the Scottish Parliament will only "normally" be required.  That implies, of course, that to act without consent is an extraordinary constitutional exception on a par with the impeachment of an American President or something of that sort.  Do you get any sense at all that the London establishment and media have acknowledged the gravity of what is happening?  Has Huw Edwards been presenting the Ten O'Clock News from Edinburgh for the last week as the crisis deepens?  Has the sainted Sarah Smith been fronting Panorama specials?  Was it a figment of our imagination that only a token 15 minutes was devoted to the power grab in the House of Commons yesterday, rather than ten hours?  It has become abundantly clear that the Sewel Convention - supposedly put on a statutory basis after 2014 in line with The Vow - is a presentational con-trick.  The pretence of treating it with reverence was only going to be maintained for as long as there was no cost to Westminster - but as soon as that was no longer the case, it was always going to be contemptuously ignored as if everyone knew it was a bit of a joke.  Not one person in the London media seems to think this turn of events is remotely strange or surprising.  Indeed, they seem more surprised today that Ian Blackford was actually taking the Sewel Convention and The Vow seriously.

There is, of course, no going back from the walk-out today.  The SNP membership would not accept that a matter that was serious enough to prompt a walk-out from the Commons is not serious enough to also necessitate a pre-2021 referendum on independence, in line with the mandate secured two years ago by the Scottish Government.  What's more, I simply don't believe - regardless of Sarah Smith's relentless propagandising to the contrary - that the SNP leadership will ask the membership to accept that.  It is inevitable that a pre-2021 referendum will now be called.

Events since the first indyref - betrayal of The Vow, followed by the Brexit vote, followed by Brexit mutating into a Hard Brexit, followed by the destruction of the devolution settlement - have occurred at a gradual enough pace that it's sometimes possible not to see the wood for the trees.  Let's take a step back.  The people of Scotland narrowly voted against independence in September 2014 on the basis of specific promises that Scotland would remain in the EU, and that the Scottish Parliament would become more powerful.  Instead, Scotland is being dragged out of the EU against its will, and powers that the Scottish Parliament has held since its inauguration in 1999 are being taken away.  Either one of those two material changes in circumstances would make the case for a second referendum unanswerable.  The two in combination make it a slam-dunk. 

This isn't a strategic calculation about whether we dare risk asking the question again in case the answer is No.  It's about giving a betrayed public the right that they deserve to revisit a decision they took on the basis of a false prospectus.