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By Jason Michael
SCOTLAND IS NOT GOVERNED. Within the union state of the United Kingdom, led as it is by the overwhelming power bloc of English MPs in the House of Commons – the elected representatives of the English state, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are dominated, and it is in their domination by England that they are ruled. The numerical constitution of the British parliament makes this obvious: In the Commons England is represented by 533 seats, while Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland combined hold a mere 117 – less than 22 per cent of the “democratic” power of England in the state parliament. It is this democratic deficit that forms the basis of the essential arithmetic of what we may call the imposed will of the English state over the other nations of the United Kingdom.
Margaret Thatcher famously said that all Scotland needed to gain independence was to send a majority of nationalist MPs to Westminster, but for almost three years – with the SNP holding a comfortable majority of the Scots seats in the Commons – we have learned that this is simply not the case. With both a pro-independence majority in Edinburgh and an SNP majority in London, we have come to see that British democracy is calibrated in such a way as to stifle the democratic will of Scotland. The same is true for Wales and Northern Ireland. In fact, the constitution of the United Kingdom – while unwritten – makes it impossible for us to assert our will without the fundamentally undemocratic permission of the English state-dominated British government.
At heart, this means that Scotland is not and cannot be governed as a constituent part of the union state. Even under tyranny the idea of governance presupposes consent. Central to Rousseau’s idea of the social contract is the notion that any government, in order to be legitimate, must have the consent of those who are governed. Corey Brettschneider, a professor of Political Science at Brown University, explains:
In ‘The Social Contract,’ Rousseau argues that in societies with a legitimate social contract, unanimous consent is necessary, “at least on one occasion.” In particular, he refers to the founding moment of the social contract to legitimize the authority of the terms of the social contract over every citizen.
Given the constitution of British democracy, the consent of Scotland on any issue – as we have discovered throughout the Brexit process and with the EU Withdrawal Bill especially – is irrelevant. Within the United Kingdom Scotland lacks both the ability to consent explicitly and to withhold its consent. Scotland is then an anomaly – together with Wales and Northern Ireland – in that it cannot consent to be governed, and thus cannot be governed.
Yet, in saying that Scotland is not and cannot be governed, the suggestion is not being made that we are in a state of anarchy. On the contrary, the nature of our political domination means that we are ruled – in effect – as a possession of the dominant state in the union.
How did we ever, as a nation, get into such a powerless position? The answer to this question reaches back, of course, into the reasons England sought political union with Scotland in the first place. In danger of over simplification, we can say that the English state was brought to the conclusion that Scotland had to be dominated and subsumed by the English state in an incorporating union that would end Scotland’s ability to compete economically with the Kingdom of England at a time when both kingdoms were emerging as major trading nations.
The union state that was formed in 1707, while in fact being an enlargement of the English state, took on the identity of a new state – Great Britain, and so required for its success a national narrative; a nation-building myth. In union Scotland was dominated. Of this there is no question. But – as is the case in all imperial and colonial projects – a rationale had to be constructed to explain the place the dominated occupied in the new order. Without such a categorising incorporating myth the dominated remain only a conquered people, and – without a narrative explanation of its place – would always be in a state of actual or latent rebellion.
Perhaps chief among the early unionist authors of the British nation-building myth is Walter Scott, who wooed Scots with shady compliments; manufacturing a glorious image of the Scots Gael as a fiery warrior ruled not by reason and intellect but by his or her baser passions. There is no finer example of this caricature than the one he draws in ‘Rob Roy:’
“Damn your brandy, sir!” said the Lowlander, adjusting his cocked hat fiercely upon his head; “we desire neither your brandy nor your company,” and up he rose from his seat. His companions also arose, muttering to each other, drawing up their plaids, and snorting and snuffing the air after the manner of their countrymen when working themselves into a passion.
Unlike the Englishman, who is by nature a rational being, the tartan draped Scots act impulsively; their motions are fierce, they snort and snuff like beasts ready to enter the fray, and together work themselves up into a passion. War horses can take great pride in their animalistic contribution to the collective effort of the army, but they can never be the generals. The true glory of the beast on the battlefield is in its domination by those in power, and so this was the place assigned to the Scots and to Scotland in the union state – a backhanded compliment.
This myth goes a long way to explaining the reputation of the Scots and the Irish in union, as unruly and often rebellious elements within the state. It comes from the fact that both Scotland and Ireland were always aliens within the British state – a state that was always imagined by its architects as a Greater England. As outsider-insiders incapable of giving their consent to be government, the Irish and the Scots were always capable of rebellion in a way the English were not. The answer to this has always been that the will of the state has been imposed on them.
Britain’s Imposed Will