Sunday, July 10, 2022

"Choose Your Own British Constitution", starring Alister Jack

During the crisis that led to Boris Johnson's resignation, the BBC used startlingly colonial language to note that Alister Jack was the only one of the "territorial" Secretaries of State who hadn't resigned.  It seems that from the point of view of the state broadcaster, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are not nations, but mere "territories" on a par with the Yukon Territory or Nunavut.  It also seems that Alister Jack is so comprehensively Boris Johnson's man in Scotland that nothing could ever have persuaded him to distance himself from his master.  It would therefore be logical to think that Johnson's successor might not want someone so closely associated with a discredited former Prime Minister, and that the "Jack era" (chortle) might be drawing to a close.  Which chillingly means that Andrew Bowie could soon be Secretary of State for Scotland.

If so, one of the last hurrahs for Jack will be perhaps the most mind-bogglingly incoherent and contradictory set of ramblings on constitutional matters that it has ever been our misfortune to hear.  According to the Evening Standard, Jack said a few days ago that UK general elections are "not for the purpose" of determining whether Scotland should become an independent country or have a referendum on independence.  Why not?  Because the constitution is a reserved matter.

Er, Alister, I don't know how to break the news to you, mate, but "reserved matter" means a power that is not devolved and is instead retained by Westminster - in other words the parliament that is elected by UK general elections.  If Westminster elections are "not for the purpose" of determining Westminster matters....well, I'm not quite sure I have the vocabulary to finish this sentence, other than to say that Jack has plainly gone crackers.  And in case you think he mis-spoke, he actually developed the point at quite some length, proclaiming that the SNP are not allowed to put policy on Westminster matters in their Westminster manifesto.  This is the exact quote: 

"Nicola Sturgeon can no more put in her manifesto that she’s going to remove Trident from the Clyde which is entirely reserved – which she’s done in the past but she’s never removed Trident from the Clyde – than she can put in her manifesto she’s going to break up the United Kingdom. That isn’t how general elections work."

I'm trying to work out how on earth Jack would explain or rationalise that statement in the unlikely event that a semi-competent journalist ever challenged him on it.  The implication seems to be that Westminster elections are not the correct democratic arena to pursue reserved Westminster matters, which begs the obvious question: what would be the correct democratic arena?  If the SNP aren't allowed to put policy on reserved matters in their manifesto for elections to the House of Commons, should they instead be putting it in their manifesto for Scottish Parliament elections? Or in their manifesto for local council elections?  Or in their manifesto for elections to the House of Lords?  Or in their manifesto for elections to the Supreme Court? Or perhaps the UK isn't a democracy and nobody - especially not a Jock voter - is allowed to vote on reserved matters in any election ever?

Logically, it's got to be one of the above, surely?

By the way, if you expect to find consistency in the constitutional pronouncements of Secretaries of State for Scotland down the ages, you'll search in vain.  Two decades ago, the first post-devolution Secretary of State Dr John Reid said the polar opposite of what Jack has just said.  Reid declared that the SNP couldn't use Scottish Parliament elections to pursue independence or an indyref, because "if you understand the constitution" (those are the words he used), you would know that the way to achieve independence is to put it in your Westminster manifesto and achieve a majority in Scotland at a Westminster general election.  Why?  Because the constitution is a reserved matter.  (Ahem.)

Not only does Reid's version of the constitution contradict Jack's, it also contradicts the current stance of his own Labour party, so if anyone has an extensive video collection of political interviews from the early days of devolution, that might be a rather useful clip to dig out.

When I was at primary school, there were some books lying around from the American "Choose Your Own Adventure" series in which the reader is the protagonist and shapes the story by making active decisions at the end of each entry.  ("If you want to enter the sinister-looking cave, go to page 43.  If you would rather have schnapps, go to page 238.")   The unwritten British constitution seems to provide similar exciting opportunities for Scottish Secretaries.  Reid, of course, held his position in an era when it was unthinkable that the SNP would ever take a majority of Scottish seats in a Westminster election, but when it was thought just about plausible they could win a Scottish Parliament election.  So he thought it was a spiffing wheeze to decide that "the constitution says" that the SNP need to win a Westminster election before Scotland can become independent.  But now that there is plainly no type of election that the SNP are incapable of winning, Reid's successor has been forced to magically conclude that "the constitution says" there is no democratic route to independence at all.

I must say that the malleability, adaptability and flexibility of the British constitution is truly inspiring to behold.  

*  *  *

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  1. I think James that we are not going to be allowed to leave. Its Ireland again. I think that it is going to require our elected representatives to break the 'conventions' that Westminster has created. I don't think they have the mettle.

    1. Yes I think they do lack the mettle for action. To quote Johann Lamont : “We’re not genetically programmed in Scotlandshire to make political decisions”.

  2. Similar thoughts to WT.
    We are stuck with looking at the independence issue wearing parliamentary democratic blinkers because in all of our lifetimes, and with all of it's flaws, that's how things have always been done.
    Jack is no great intellect but it may be that he has stumbled to a, rather over frank, statement of reality.
    WT is right, look at Ireland a century ago. In they end they were offered the strangulated Free State deal or a mass British Army to raze their country to the ground. It took fifty plus years, and EU membership, to be able release their potential.
    I'm not advocating armed struggle. I'm seventy, live in a comfortable house and have four, beautiful grandchildren.
    However it may be that there is no parliamentary democratic road to indy and that 2014 was a fluke. We'll have to keep trying it though because that is where all of our minds are. Unless some other lucky fluke comes out of our campaigning it's going to be a very long struggle to find a road away from the clutches of a drowning British state hanging onto 'liferaft Scotland' with white knuckles.
    I fervently hope that I'm wrong but........

  3. WT. You are correct . We ar now entering the civil dissobedience stage. After that who knows? This can't go on much longer.

  4. For all the complaints about the SNP getting too cosy with the Westminster establishment, at least it seems none of them actually attend the Spectator summer party.

    1. "Getting too cosy with the Westminster establishment" - the SNP are part of the Westminster establishment but have to keep up the pretence that they are for independence to get the numpties to keep voting for them.

      Vote SNP they will not attend Spectator summer parties - aye that has a real radical ring to it.

  5. There is no British constitution. There is the Claim of Right where people of Scotland are sovereign in Scotland and the Bill of Rights (1689) where English the parliament is sovereign in England. The form contradicts the other and that is why nothing is written down.

    It's a make it up as you go along, whatever suits the purpose of the day expedient fudge.

    The sooner we wake up to this fact, as borne out by the behaviour and actions of twats like Jack and Reid, the better.

  6. Sooner or later Scotland's political representatives must break Westminster law. Sooner or later all pro-indy supporters must do the same. Some form of UDI must be introduced. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. If we go down make sure we go down fighting. Create constitutional chaos.

  7. Excellent article James. The UK is a shithouse and its politicians are corrupt morons. The SNP are bloody useless but are shielded by Scottish morons who still believe the SNP will deliver independence. The people preventing Scottish independence are not the Tories but the people of Scotland.

  8. The big dug now says " Scotland is not a democracy in any meaningful sense." Well no shit Sherlock! You and all your numpties went along for years with Sturgeons shameful time wasting of appealing to PM's of a country preventing democracy in Scotland for a sec gold standard.

    There has NEVER been democracy for Scotland - not now and not ever but we are told by numpties we must play by the rules of the colonial power - England. You either are a moron or don't want independence to follow this path. Morons abound btl on WGD but others are charlatans.

  9. Alistair Jack - forgotten but not gone