Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Second Referendum: The Conservative Party’s “40% Rule”

So it seems that the Conservative/Liberal Democrats are arguing that any Scottish referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future must be superseded by a referendum conducted by the UK government. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise. After all, during the counting of votes following the Scottish Election, as it became clear that the SNP were going to win a majority of seats, deputy Scottish Conservative leader Murdo Fraser was calling for the UK government to hastily organise its own referendum. He argued that it should be held as quickly as possible, his intention clearly being to scupper the Scottish Government before it had a reasonable chance to put forward a positive case for independence. Cleary this would be unfair as the UK and the propaganda mechanisms that ensure its cohesion (i.e. the British media) have had more than a 300 year head start!

Yet now the Scottish Secretary, Michael Moore, is arguing that any referendum held in Scotland must be followed by one from the UK government. Firstly, I’m assuming this will only be held if there is a yes vote, so how exactly can this be democratic and fair? Secondly, there is, of course, no legal requirement to actually have a second referendum. Certainly, the UK government has rather conveniently reserved the power of constitutional matters for itself, yet that simply means that it can either choose to accept or ignore the vote of the Scottish electorate. They are by no means required by law to hold their own referendum, after all the United Kingdom does not have a written constitution in the way that many other states have. Furthermore, the Treaty of Union that created the United Kingdom in the first place was never put to the people in a referendum (and would most likely have been rejected by the Scottish people at the time if it had).

And yet here we have a situation where in order to leave the union, there must be not one, but two referendums. It simply beggars belief! Moreover, could you imagine the furore in the English media, if the United Kingdom were told by the European Union that any referendum to leave the EU must be superseded by an EU-run referendum?

This is not the first time the UK government has tried to impede the Scottish people’s democratic right to choose its own constitutional destiny. In 1979, the Scottish people were given the opportunity to vote for an assembly with considerably less powers than the Scottish Parliament currently has. It was, of course, a knee jerk reaction to the rise of the SNP in the 1970s with the discovery of North Sea oil, and its intention was to kill the nationalist vote.

Yet despite the fairly limited scope of devolution on offer at the time, the very Labour government that was running the referendum on home rule, was fearful that a vote in favour would weaken the power of the British state. In essence it was only offering a referendum; it was not exactly enthusiastic of it resulting in a yes vote. Nor had it any intention of delivering on it. It was all about giving Scotland the illusion that it had the right to choose an assembly of its own.

In the referendum vote, 51.6% actually voted in favour. Yet, despite this majority, it was not accepted as valid because the Labour government had craftily inserted what has come to be called the 40% rule, meaning that regardless of whether there was a vote in favour, 40% of the entire Scottish electorate had to have voted yes. Effectively those who didn’t vote, or couldn’t vote, were treated as a no vote. Now this is plainly unfair - after all 100% turnouts are nigh on impossible to achieve without voting being made a legal mandatory requirement. Voter turnouts for elections in the UK tend to be between 60% and 70%, and the fact that the 1979 referendum had a voter turnout of 63.8% was quite normal and by no means low. Furthermore, the very Labour government that had brought in the 40% rule was only voted in by 28.5% of the entire electorate, something that highlighted the gross hypocrisy of the situation. The recent AV referendum only had a turnout of 42%, meaning that actually only 28.5% of the entire electorate voted no. And as for Labour’s so-called “landslide” victory of 1997, well it was only voted in by 30.8% of the entire electorate!

The simple truth is that the United Kingdom, despite what it might proclaim to be, is not a political union of nations where its constituent countries have a free and democratic right to leave as they chose. This might explain why the current waiting list to join the United Kingdom is somewhat empty and will likely remain so for the rest of human history. As The Eagles put it: You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. And if any historical proof were needed that you can’t simply decide to leave this supposed shining example of democracy, then one needs look no further than Ireland in 1918 when Sinn Féin, a party whose clear intention was not to take up its seats at Westminster, but rather to set up its own parliament in Ireland, won a majority of seats in Ireland. The result was (in the absence of one being legally available to the Irish people) a de-facto referendum on independence. Yet this rather bold slap in the face to “Mother England” left Ireland in a state of war with the British which in turn ended in a messy partition settlement.

Of course the idea that a yes vote on Scottish independence would lead to English troops being sent into Scotland would be highly unlikely today. Times have changed, and wars have gotten rather a bad rap lately, what with Iraq and all of that. Furthermore, with the internet and the 24-hours news cycle, people are more aware of what’s going on in other countries than they were in the early 20th Century. It just wouldn’t be the acceptable way to do things now.

Yet it is perfectly fine, at least in the view of the current UK government, to try and put a spoke in the wheels of any political movement that might allow, through democratic means, the self-determination of a constituent nation of the current United Kingdom. After all, the United Kingdom is not some cosy club for the benefit of its constituent nations. Indeed, the poetic notion of the “home nations”, so often used in sporting commentary, is little more than a sham cover-up for the reality of a Greater England. The simple truth is that Scotland is not in a political and economic union with England; rather Scotland has become absorbed by England.

Post-1707 Scotland is a conquered nation, with it’s conquest having happened in a political rather than military fashion. Consequently, the British state is, in essence the English State. It was Scotland’s parliament that shut up shop in 1707, not England’s. Westminster was and remains England’s parliament. And that, to put it bluntly is why the West Lothian question has never been addressed. After all, it would simply be absurd to have an English parliament separate to the one that already exists at Westminster. After all, historically, it has always been England’s Parliament.

Likewise it would be absurd to rename the Bank of England as the Bank of The United Kingdom. Its simply not going to happen. And that is why it is a parliament in England and not the Scottish parliament, or its people who will have the final say on Scottish self-determination.

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