It’s no wonder nothing fundamental ever changes in this country, it seems that we have completely forgotten how to do it. This year’s referendum in Scotland, and the ensuing Smith Commission mess, has only served to reinforce the image of our political process as a principle-free game for a disconnected elite. That image is well-deserved, and founded on scientific observation.
The Smith Commission highlights the enormous democratic deficit we face: a bunch of politicians get together behind closed doors to negotiate amongst themselves what they think should be devolved from national responsibility to one regional parliament. They are effectively rewriting our constitution in a few hastily arranged secret meetings, and without consultation. What will be offered has not been reviewed by the electorate, let alone selected by them. Any notion that the settlement will have been democratically endorsed will be stretching the truth into dangerous realms of delusion.
To understand just what a mockery this makes of the democratic process, let’s review how we got to this point. First the Scottish people were offered a vote in a referendum on a question that they did not select, and which purposefully ignored the one they wanted. The referendum had no constitutional standing beyond that are attributed to it in closed-door meetings by political party leaders. It did not form part of a comprehensive view of how to govern these islands. It was not offered equally to all of the regions. And how any result would actually be put into practice was not defined.
Presented with ill-defined options that citizens were not really interested in, the referendum campaign degenerated into populist rabble rousing, and when it started to look like the voters would select the more radical option (an option that was actually formatted to look unacceptable, and to be impractical), panic set in. A single politician then reformulated the entire referendum by attaching promises to the “No” option that had not been part of the campaign until the last few days. Whether these late addendums actually made the difference in the result or not, we will never know. What we can be sure of is that the vast majority of people who voted “no” were going to do so without any of these last-minute addendums.
What we, and particularly the people of Scotland, are subjected to now, can only be described as a spectacle of desperate politicians face-saving and horsetrading. When the starting position is absent of any principle, conceived on-the-fly, and written on the back of a fag packet, it cannot be any surprise that the final result will be a polished turd. Unseemly does not do it justice, the Smith Commission process has degenerated into a back room deal, reeking of political cowardice. The news that female fertility rights have been on the agenda for devolution, is but one example of how confused and sullied the process became.
All this would be merely sad, where it not for the desperately important principles at stake. It makes a mockery of the most important process, the very heart of the notion of human society: communal decision-making. We know how to do this so much better (See here and here), and when we fail to live up to those standards, we place all of the work of many generations, past and future, in jeopardy. This entire referendum process and the Smith Commission, belongs more in a history book of the 18th century, than it does to our current times. The Scots are going to be offered something that vast majority of them did not vote for, they will be offered something conceived to appeal to a small minority of swing voters (that any calculation can only reasonably suggest would be less than 10%). It will present more questions than it answers, and it will betray the idea of democracy, just at the very time that we need to be reinforcing it.
Instead of bottom-up democracy, we get top-down obfuscation. Instead of constitutional settlement, we get juvenile convenience. Instead of leadership, we get connivence. Instead of shining a light on the path to a future worth living, we get wreckage thrown down to make future passage more difficult. It’s a travesty, and everyone involved should be hanging their heads in shame – as they surely will be a year or two hence.
Today is either the saddest day in British politics for a generation, or the beginning of the end for our outmoded and antiquated semblance of a proper democracy.