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by James Mitchell
18 July 2022
It's easy to imagine a Scottish democratic renewal without independence

It's easy to imagine a Scottish democratic renewal without independence

To describe the latest paper in the SNP’s Building a New Scotland series as disappointing would be to praise it too highly. 

It is a rehash of nationalist arguments that attempts to equate independence with democracy. 

Scotland’s constitutional debate, thankfully, is a debate between democrats. It is troubling that understandable frustrations may be leading the SNP down a track that seeks to portray opponents as anti-democratic.

The claim is that the paper “demonstrates that only independence can provide the assurance that Scotland’s democracy can thrive and its democratic institutions be protected”. It does no such thing. 

It is easy to imagine a renewal of Scottish democracy without independence. It could start by reversing the SNP’s centralisation and by being much more open and transparent. What damns this document is the failure to engage with debate on the kind of democracy we need.

Much of the argument rests on the notion that the current SNP shares with many of its opponents that the “Westminster Parliament embodies the notion of unlimited sovereignty to legislate on all matters, free of any constraint from underpinning principles of international law or human rights, and now also from EU law”. This is utterly fanciful. 

Westminster’s “unlimited” power is a myth shared by Brexiteers and fundamentalist nationalists of various hues. It clearly does not extend to many parts of the economy, for example. 

Try as it occasionally may to regulate the financial institutions, not to mention the reach of global media, constitutional power has strict limits. But acknowledging this, spoils the sovereignty myth that serves fundamentalist nationalists so well.

It is, of course, valid as many have over decades, to criticise the absence of agreed rules to allow Scots a vote on independence. But this document elides this valid criticism with claims to offer the “only realistic way to renew Scotland’s democratic institutions”. 

The lack of self-awareness in (rightly) criticising UK government for hoarding power and treating devolved institutions with contempt while behaving in exactly the same way with local government is breathtaking. 

It has nothing to say on local democracy.  There is nothing on democratic innovation, nothing on how to advance the pursuit of 50/50 representation and ensure the multiform Scotland is given voice, not just amongst 129 members of a parliament, but throughout society and politics. 

There is nothing whatsoever recognising that democratic equality has to be much more than one person one vote, undermined by levels of poverty. 

There is reference to human rights but only to attack Westminster in this one-dimensional document. Not a word is offered on improving accountability so obviously lacking in a government that prefers secrecy and less than full disclosure. 

There was a day – actually there were many, many days – when the SNP would debate such matters, have raucous discussion of the constitution of an independent Scotland. 

The paper uses the language of self-government but demonstrates little understanding of its meaning. 

And therein lies the crux of the matter. The SNP has always contained nationalist and self-government ideas. Self-government has been relegated, if not abandoned, under the current leadership, and the SNP has become a straightforward one dimensional nationalist party.

The fear for supporters of self-government is that an independent Scotland would simply replicate much of the worst of Westminster. 

What is on offer is not a proposal to renew democracy.  This dismal, negative, uninspiring document suggests that the SNP would recreate a warped and discredited form of democracy, an independent Scotland that would simply be a little Britain. 

A renewal of Scottish democracy is needed.  It does not need to await independence.

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