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Be wary of what you wish for

Simon Campion-Brown wades in

The topic of Scottish independence refuses to go away. Yesterday’s strange proceedings in the House of Commons, supposedly addressing the vexed problem of how to take forward the consequential issue of ‘English only votes on English only issues’, is the latest manifestation.

It would seem that anyone who though that the issue of Scottish independence had been decided forever – or was it just for a generation? –  by the referendum held on 18th September has had the equivalent of a rude awakening since.

The Scottish nationalists, now led by Nicola Sturgeon, still appear to regard independence as on the agenda (taking the attitude “it’s only a matter of time”, by which they mean ten to fifteen years maximum). Alex Salmond is now threatening to return to Westminster as an MP after the 2015 General Election.

The Guardian newspaper is currently running a series of articles on the course of the referendum campaign. This has already revealed that Alistair Darling, official leader of the ‘No’ campaign, phoned prime minister David Cameron at 5.00am on the morning after the result begging him not to mention the ‘English MP votes for English issues’ issue, to no avail.

queenToday it provides details of the desperate initiative to involve the Queen – apparently a willing participant – just four days before the vote, following a Sunday Times/YouGov poll taken on 7th September showed a 51%-49% in favour of a ‘Yes’ vote for the first time. After delicate and secret negotiations between Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, and Sir Christopher Geidt, for the Palace, the monarch then told a well-wisher outside a Sunday church service that she hoped the people would “think very carefully about the future”.

See here for the article by Nicholas Watt, Patrick Wintour and Severin Carrell today on the website of THE GUARDIAN

I blame the politicians for bringing the potential break-up of the United Kingdom onto the agenda, of course. For some plainly-not-thought-through reason, Tony Blair decided to pander to all nationalists by embracing the notion of Devolution … and the die was cast.

When it  comes to courts of law, the first thing that any aspiring barrister learns at his pupil master’s knee is that the most important thing to do – that is, after mastering your own client’s case, of course – is to master that of your opponent.

Because, if you can work out what the opponent’s arguments will be, you’ll be in the best possible position to counter them. Furthermore, even better still is to have worked out what ‘end position’ your opponent is hoping to achieve. Sometimes he just wants to ‘have his day in court’ (maybe not much room for manoeuvre or compromise there). Sometimes he’s going to court for precisely the reasons stated. But sometimes, just sometimes, he’s going to court not for the reasons stated, but as a means to achieving something quite different. If that is the case – and you can work out what that ‘something quite different’ is – maybe you can even do a deal (especially if what he ultimately wants is of little or no consequence at all to your own client), even at the door of the court, and not get involved in a court case at all.

What’s the benefit of that? Well, it’s a fact of life that when two tribes go to war in a British court – or indeed any court in the world – literally any outcome can happen. Including one that neither side would have wanted.

Where the British politician establishment went fundamentally wrong with Devolution (ignoring for a moment the fact it allowed the subject to be raised at all) is tied up with the second thing that all aspiring lawyers learn at their mentor’s knee, i.e. that you should never ask a question to which you do not already know the answer.

In the legal world, of course, this primarily applies to asking questions of witnesses on oath in a court room. Your own witnesses, just as much as your opponent’s.

westminsterIn the world of constitutional politics – on an issue as important as Devolution – you’re talking about putting issues to the voting electorate, of course.

Cutting straight to the chase, in this case as regards the issue of Scottish independence, the prospect of holding a ‘Yes/No’ referendum should never have been allowed to get away from the starting blocks unless the British political establishment was 100% relaxed about whatever the result might be.

And, in this case, as it happens – ridiculously and erroneously – it seems they were.

[Hopefully you can see where I’m coming from].

It is worth registering here another essential truth of politics that that a one-off Either/Or vote never decides anything once and for-all, i.e. for eternity.

And there’s a distinction to be accepted here between perception and practical reality.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m sure that that the British political establishment did take the issue of Scottish independence seriously as seriously as was warranted.

However, they made a basic error and miscalculation.

Despite all that supposed brain power sloshing around in Westminster and Whitehall, they quickly formed the view that – if all the arguments for and against were presented and debated to their natural and logical conclusion – never in a thousand years would the Scottish electorate opt in favour of independence from the United Kingdom.

And that naïve conclusion was the only reason why they allowed a referendum to take place.

Well, they got it wrong.

If they’d simply stuck with pure logic – viz. that if you put a Either/Or issue to the electorate, plainly both outcomes are theoretically possible – then they would never have allowed a referendum to take place.

And that’s what should have happened, folks.


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About Simon Campion-Brown

A former lecturer in politics at Keele University, Simon now lives in Oxfordshire. Married with two children, in 2007 he decided to monitor the Westminster village via newspaper and television and has never looked back. More Posts