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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