Mike Russell notes that the primary duty of the Scottish Parliament and its Members is to serve the people of Scotland and protect their interests. One would hope and expect this to be no more than a statement of the obvious. We would tend to assume that this is a sentiment with which every MSP would concur. It would seem to be a fundamental principle, that those elected to a Parliament owe full allegiance to the people who elect them. In most circumstances, this would simply be taken for granted.
But Scotland’s circumstances are exceptional. The great divide in Scottish politics is such that the allegiances of those on one side of that divide cannot be assumed.
We hear a great deal of talk about ‘divisive’ politics. Much of it is strident and angry. As if division was some horrifying new phenomenon being introduced to our politics by ‘bad’ politicians, rather than simply a perfectly normal feature of all politics. Without division, there is no politics. Politics is a contest of ideas. Democratic politics allows everybody to participate in that contest. Democracy provides a means by which the people can be active in the contest of ideas, both as advocates and as judges. In a true and properly functioning democracy, all political authority derives from the people, and only the people can be the ultimate arbiters in the contest of ideas. In an ideal democracy, all the people affected by political choices participate in the process of debate and decision-making.
It is not politicians who create division. Their role is to represent the people in the contest of ideas. To facilitate the democratic process. To conduct the process of debate and decision-making for and on behalf of the electorate.
Politicians should be judged on whether, and how well, they serve the polity. That is all. But there may be a question as to which polity they actually serve.
There are, of course, many divisions in politics. Where politicians seek to portray division as a bad thing, it will always be only very particular forms or instances of division that are condemned. Commonly, the division being denounced will be on a matter where the politician doing the condemning feels their arguments are weak. Rather than engage in the contest of ideas on a particular issue, they object to there being a contest at all. Typically, they will seek to award themselves a bye in that particular contest. They declare themselves winners, not by dint of their superior arguments, but by rejecting the idea that they should have been called upon to formulate and advance any arguments in the first place.
It goes without saying that these are politicians who cannot be judged favourably on the basis of their service to a democratic process that they are trying to obstruct and circumvent. The politician’s job is to address divisions – hopefully, in a mature and rational fashion – not to deny them. Divisions denied or inadequately addressed will tend to fester and degenerate into conflicts.
There are few, if any, trivial divisions in politics. Political divisions reflect social divisions. The contest of ideas is not an abstract intellectual exercise. The ideas being contested derive from various social imbalances, the way these are perceived and proposals for rectifying or ameliorating them. Every division is important to someone. The outcome of every bout in the political tournament impacts on real people. Politics matters to everyone.
Having said that, there is a scale of greater and lesser divisions. It must be so, for surely there is a scale of greater and lesser ideas to be contested in the political arena. While no division is totally insignificant, there are ideas – concepts – which lie at the very core of our politics, because they relate to the very nature of our politics and our society.
The greatest of divisions are, inevitably, constitutional. It is necessarily so because all other divisions ultimately come back to the matter of who decides and how the decisions are made and how they are implemented and how they are upheld and how they may be amended or rescinded. The late Tony Benn elegantly and succinctly captured the essence of constitutional politics when he formulated the five questions which must be asked of established power.
What power have you got?
Where did you get it from?
In whose interests do you use it?
To whom are you accountable?
How do we get rid of you?
However much some politicians may deny and evade and minimise and deflect, it is an incontrovertible fact that the greatest division in Scottish politics is on the matter of the Union. More specifically, to the flaws which make the Union constitutionally untenable. The asymmetry – or ‘democratic deficit’ – which means Scotland’s interests can never be adequately represented, served or protected. And the explicit denial of the principle of popular sovereignty in favour of a concept of parliamentary sovereignty which is at best archaic, and, at worst, anti-democratic.
To properly understand Scotland’s politics it is essential to understand the core constitutional issue. To adequately appreciate the ‘Grand Divide’ in Scottish politics it is necessary to grasp the ideas which lie on either side of that divide. Ideas which are being ever more vigorously contested.
Articles, long essays and entire books have been written exploring and explaining and critiquing these ideas. Here, brevity is required – even at the cost of oversimplification and generalisation.
On the one side, we have the idea of Union and those who wish to preserve an archaic, anachronistic, anomalous and evidently dysfunctional constitutional settlement.
On the other we have the idea of independence and those who favour the normalisation of Scotland’s constitutional status, the restoration of powers to the Scottish Parliament and government by a democratically elected administration.
Which brings us back to the matter of our MSPs and the question of their loyalties. Whatever else it may be, the Scottish Government’s Continuity Bill is a test of the allegiance of MSPs. In supporting or opposing the Bill they will effectively be choosing between.
- The Scottish Parliament to which they were elected and which has genuine democratic legitimacy.
- A different parliament in a different country with a different political culture voted by a different electorate and serving a different polity. A parliament where Scotland has little more than token representation and where sits a government with no mandate from the Scottish electorate.
The people of Scotland are surely entitled to expect that, at a minimum, those they elect to represent them at Holyrood should accept the authority of the Scottish Parliament. We might reasonably anticipate that they would acknowledge the democratic legitimacy of the Scottish Parliament and respect it’s decisions and rulings as truly representing the will of Scotland’s people.
Further, are we not entitled to insist that those we elect to the Scottish Parliament be willing to affirm the democratic right of self-determination and acknowledge that this right is vested wholly in the people of Scotland to be exercised entirely at their discretion? How can someone legitimately sit in the Scottish Parliament who denies the right of Scotland’s people to freely chose the form of government that best suits their needs?
The question for MSPs is clear and simply. Do you accept that your primary role is to serve the people of Scotland and protect their interests? Or is your allegiance to a British state which is inherently incapable of serving the people of Scotland and which is actively working against their interests in ways that are countless, but vividly exemplified by Brexit?
The people of Scotland are watching their elected representatives in the Scottish Parliament. We are waiting to see which of them deserve to be there.
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