Constituting Scotland

Getting out of Britain is not easy. We mustn’t be parochial about this, I agree; it may turn out to be even harder for the English and the Welsh than for the Scots. However, we in Scotland have to do it our own way, and a starting-gate has now been laid down: the new Scottish Parliament. There are both pros and cons to it, much debated around the first birthday celebrations in July. But the most important con was scarcely mentioned then; a sign of immaturity, perhaps, which any new political opposition will have to address?

Scotland had been allowed a Parliament, but not a constitution of its own. The rules guiding the new assembly are a concoction rather than a synthesis: on one hand, the Scotland Act (1998) with its absurd stack of prohibitions delimiting Scottish sovereignty; and on the other, that crumbling Dome of Ages, Westminster’s Mother of all Constitutions. It’s rather as if Monopoly and Chess had been arbitrarily compounded into a single game, and the players left to get on with it. No-one will ever understand the rules. Few enough affected to grasp the mystique of Great Britain’s constitutional lore. That remained the preserve of those who worked it, the former ruling class and their legal gun-dogs: they always believed that tacit knowledge (conventions, etc.) was safer than damned documents readable by any lout off the streets. Blairism inherited this antique and is now striving to refurbish it; for God’s sake, a new House of Lords is one of the provisions in the Preservation Order!

Certainly, a faltering semblance of normality has been upheld in Edinburgh over Year One. But this is simply because the same political party is in office in both countries; one machine, run from one place (in spite of occasional squeaks from Glasgow) and harnessed to the one-off dream-state of the Blair Project. In a recent bulletin, Robert Hazell’s Constitution Unit at University College, London, estimated that about half Edinburgh’s legislative time had involved measures at least questioning the links with London. But of course as long as Labourism prevails, such questions will be either answered (or drowned) by committees. The smoke-filled rooms are no more; but not what went on in them. The Kingdom is now effectively United by Committee; and not much else. There they are, committee, council, board and quango: Joint, Inter-Ministerial, Steering, Departmental and Planning, ranging from the anachronistic, like the Judicial Committee of Her Majesty’s Privy Council (arbiter of matters constitutional) to the out-of-sight, like the Council of the Isles (thought up to make Ulster Protestants feel there will always be a Britain).

As the wind leaks remorselessly from the Project, however, such devices lose their pith as well. Is there anyone at all who seriously believes such a system can endure? In 2005 or (at the latest) 2009-10, there will be the problem of different parties and governments in power at Holyrood and Westminster. Though quite normal in broad comparative terms, our problem will have to be tackled in an hysterically abnormal British context. By that time, I doubt if even Brian Wilson M.P. will retain undented faith in the old unwritten constitution. Actually I suspect that by then the English may be regarding it with greater contempt than the Scots, Welsh and Irish. The question was ignored by Thatcher, flirted with and then cast aside by Blair. But it’s bound to impose itself soon. The main hinge of world-stage Britain’s has always been the Treaty of Union (1707), and if a British state and identity are to be maintained at all, they will in those circumstances have to be re-negotiated. Much negotiation can only be among equals: Holyrood, Cardiff and Belfast will have to conduct themselves at least as if they were independent, and able to confront whatever English body (or bodies) will by then have come into existence.

In Scotland, we can’t of course legislate for the rest of Britain. But surely we can get ready to legislate for our own part in what will be a great process. That involves high politics, and long-range questions of identity and national direction. When Gordon Brown warned Scots against immature identity politics, what he really meant was: leave my old British identity-politics alone; United Kingdom nationalism would remain safe within his (and Robin Cook’s) custody. The Greenwich Dome was a reanimation project for that Brit-nation; meant to demonstrate how unstoppably lively the old Constitution would be under new management. Why, it could even strengthen itself by handing out power around the periphery… just as long as the meek recipients settled down, and concentrated on their low-political nuts and bolts.

As Ross McKibbin has pointed out most acutely in the last number of New Left Review, the Blair government’s aim of modernisations has come to need and imply depoliticisation. In Bertold Brecht’s famous phrase, what it now strives constantly to do is re-elect an alternative British people: those idealised customers of government depicted in its Annual Report. Whenever actual people upset it, however; as in Wales and the London Mayoral contest; a quite different face appears. What we then see is the tetchy, impatient visage of a Great (if regrettably declining) Power. Its fear of farther loss generates ever greater impatience with disloyalty, hence ever more spin doctoring and modernisation rhetoric. The position is summed up by Brown’s policy on the Euro, only partly unwittingly: yes, Britain must join; when every one of her five impossible conditions are fulfilled to the last semi-colon, and Middle Britain is quite sure foreigners have given up deviance. We can be Eurocitizens the day a Paris government stops fearing another Editorial tongue-lashing from The Scotsman.

The Scots and their Parliament badly need to get their own act together, in order to defend themselves against this foundering world. This is why any new political formation must be constitutionally oriented; aimed not just at defending the Parliament but also at constructing a more durable and internationally presentable basis for Scottish government. It is important to notice this is not the same as independence; I mean, in the sense of the Freedom-or-bust single-strike idea traditionally cherished among SNP fundamentalists. That was a way of keeping nationalist spirits up against huge adversity, at the cost of a certain paranoia and tunnel-vision. But it’s out of date: adversity in that sense is finished. The ancien régime is falling apart so quickly no-one can keep up with it. We’re fully into the rapids of disintegration, accelerating every day that passes, and the question is how Scots can emerge from them intact. Intact and, of course, independent; or at least, much more independent than the Scotland Act permitted us to be.

It’s true that most voters and MSPs still think of constitutional matters as somehow abstract, remote or secondary. But this is essentially the residual myopia of Britishness; not surprising in a transitional system where, unavoidably, it has been the old-Brit parties that took over and are still trying to run things. They have borne forward many vices of Westminster, and here is an outstanding one; perhaps the most fundamental, and the hardest to get rid of. Since the defeat of Chartism in 1848, popular constitutional agitation has been marginalized in U.K. political life. The only exception; a great one; was the feminist revolt of Edwardian times, which shook the old order badly. But the ranks were reformed none the less (and it’s still happening: I find myself writing this the week after Mo Mowlam’s resignation).

The sense that constitutional politics is for them rather than us may now be a feature of British-Labour politics; it is emphatically not a feature of the older Scottish tradition. The exact opposite is the case. A study called Claiming Scotland has recently appeared and made this point most interestingly. The author, American anthropologist Jonathan Hearn, has got to know us pretty well, but also kept some distance from our dafter notions. He argues that although ethnic Scottishness is largely contrived, the effort to transcend it and to make (or claim) a political and constitutional nation has been the underlying identity of the Scots. In William McIlvanney’s famous slogan, we are indeed a country of mongrels on the edge of nowhere. But there is an odd implication to this. The only way we have ever been able to do better is by becoming a civic nation. And what that means is constituting ourselves by choice, as an egalitarian (in today’s terms a social-democratic) society. Hearn lists the chronology of the effort: 1638, 1643, 1689 (Claim of Rights Mk.1), 1707 (the Union Treaty, conceived by the Scots as an equal arrangement), 1842 (Claim of Rights Mk 2), 1949 (the Covenant), 1988 (Claim of Rights Mk 3), 1992 (The Democracy Declaration at Edinburgh). Even more amazing, he points out how all these have referred back, sometimes half-consciously, to an event in the later Middle Ages: not the military victory of Bannockburn but the claim made in its wake, the Declaration of Arbroath (1320).

This is what constitutionalism is about in Scotland. It isn’t unique. England and other countries exhibit analogous traditions which are not (or not entirely) invented as a current fashion would make us believe. But it isn’t unimportant either; and perhaps it’s time we went ahead towards Claim of Right Mk 4. After all, it was the 1988 version; the work of the Constitutional Convention and all that flowed into it; which gave us the Scotland Act and the reconvened Parliament. But in one vital respect things have now altered. From 1979 onwards the initiative for constitutional change lay unavoidably with the Labour Party, even although (as nationalists say) their pressure from outside remained vital. This is no longer the case. Labourism has allied itself fatally and finally with the failing structures of the United Kingdom, and what was new about it in the nineties now risks foundering completely in the wreckage. In Scotland and Wales, the initiative must now surely lie with the genuinely new forces and alliances released by their Parliaments and changed electoral systems.

That’s why I think any new left-national movement should put the Constitution in the centre of its ambition. Of course it isn’t the answer to all problems (any more than independence). But it is a much more important necessary condition of Scottish political advance than the arguments of Year One have recognised. Combined with reappraisals on other fronts; foreign relations, for example, and escape from the Barnett Formula via taxation powers; there must be a strategy in the making, which I hope this new Review and its supporters will be arguing during the remaining time of the first Parliament.

Tom Nairn has been a leading political theorist and academic and is best known for his seminal 1977 work, ‘The Break-up of Britain: crisis and neo-nationalism’.