Sunday 9 May 2021

Back Again as the Nations Divide

Time to resume the blog after a long gap when the political opposition to leaving the European Union was divided. The progressive left is still divided, but it is (after the devolution elections and local elections) more effective in the nations beyond England and some mayoral settings.

The Conservatives, forced to be centrist as a result of the pandemic, continue to stomp all over the political space. A terrible Brexit deal, although exposed over Ireland, and between Ireland and Britain, is yet to unravel in significant areas. (We're not going to go to war over Jersey, are we?) The divorce is a bureaucratic mess.

But where it will go wrong is with the British nations. The West Lothian question has never quite gone away - in fact it has intensified. Mark Drakeford is able to save Labour in Wales because he had a practical and deliverable manifesto assisted by the recognition given to him with the Coronavirus pandemic. The Scottish National Party and not Alba, but definitely the Green Party, was able to continue to define politics and government in Scotland. Northern Ireland wants it both ways: different from Britain when it suits, but like Britain economically as it suits.

If Ireland can produce the equivalent of the National Health Service, many northerners would vote for taking Northern Ireland into Ireland itself, and back into the European Union. Unionism is already different from the Democratic Unionist Party and its agenda: based on consent, the Alliance Party can be a place for parking Unionism and considering the future.

It is Scotland where the big change is coming. There seems to be a misunderstanding in the United Kingdom government (that increasingly legislates for England only in the details of life) that it decides the path to independence or otherwise. Previously, Cameron said yes to a Scottish Independence referendum, won it, and on the basis of that gambled again regarding the European Union in-out referendum, and thanks to Osbornes austerity and ignoring ordinary folk the government lost. Had the government lost the Scottish referendum, we would never have had an EU referendum.

However, 'just saying no' this time won't work. The reason is this. The Union of Scotland with England, Ireland and Wales was based on a consent of equal nations. Scotland remains a nation - its own legal structure and religious settlement - and the union comes from the sovereignty of the people of that nation and the nations it joined (principally England). The Supreme Court of the UK has already shown that it is both the top of the tree of the Scottish system as well as the English plus system, and if it has to decide about the legitimacy of a referendum it is likely to delve into some very ancient bases indeed about how the Union is formed.

Johnson then is in danger of making a huge error. He stayed away from Scotland in these elections to give the Scottish Conservatives a better outcome; his reach politically - his ability to win - has limitations.

The irony is that the West Lothian Question could well be sorted out via an EU style confederation. We could have a British Isles of independent nations coming together with a limited Parliament (like the EU Parliament) and a Council with national vetoes to decide matters of common interest. We could be a confederation, just like the EU, with some in it and some (one or two) not. The House of Commons ends up being English.

As for the English Labour Party (if we can call it that), it is in a hell of a mess. It probably does have to change its leader - why sack the deputy when the boss has said he carries full responsibility? But there is no party ready to take over from it. The Liberal Democrats looked diminished after these 2021 elections, still damaged from the Coalition and destroyed immediately after by its partner party the Conservatives. It propped up the Conservatives so that they could take us out of the EU, precisely the opposite of Liberal Democrat political culture, and for a while the Conservatives alone in power attacked the poor again, until Johnson started winning 'poor' population seats and became centrist. Let's see how long this lasts, and when ordinary folk with short memories wake up and smell the Tory coffee.

The point is that if Labour are failing as the Liberals once did a hundred plus years ago, where is the political party to replace Labour? Once Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy built up the Liberal Democrats and they would have been ready - but Nick Clegg destroyed all their good work and the Liberal Democrats have gone into reverse to where they were.

And look at the Liberal Democrats in Scotland. They are at some islands (Scotland's further reaches) and a few fragments. They are a fragment in Wales. They are in retreat in Cornwall. If you are pro-EU in Scotland, you must support the SNP or the Greens because the leadership of the Lib Dems have gone into retreat on the EU and because it is a Unionist party by its own intention.

My own view is we'll have to join the European Free Trade Area to have a simple and straightforward trading relationship with Europe, but to do this will need political change and I can't see it - except that the nations of the British Isles are likely to divide first and define politics. Scotland did offer this compromise and was, once again, ignored. So now Scotland is withdrawing its sovereign consent from the Union and this affects everything.