“In Scotland , the People are sovereign” says the top line of the new Scottish Constitution proposed this week by Nicola Sturgeon. Well, I’ve looked it up. And in Scotland, in England in Wales and Northern Ireland, Elizabeth Windsor Saxe-Coburg Battenburg is sovereign.
To say otherwise is treason, I’m delighted to report.
The word “sovereign” is not just a word in a constitutional monarchy. It is the origin and principle of every authority in war making and law making, tax raising and spending. Our politicians are fond of describing Britain as a democracy. But Britain HAS democracy. Not IS a democracy. Democracy is just a way of administering. The crown exercises sovereignty through parliament. Parliament is a conduit of power, not the source of it.
Now some will say this is pedantry, that the Royal Family are just window dressing for the tourists, and they’d be right about that. The living individual members of the brood are incidental. What matters is that power in this country, by which I mean the UK, is ultimately unaccountable to the people. The people are not sovereign in the UK. Let alone the Scots in Scotland! The people are subject. You ask a lawyer.
Scotland, with its paradoxes of a powerful bourgeois culture with no aspiration to take charge of their own destiny, can stand for the whole for which it is, again paradoxically, the most representative historical constituent. It is a constituent part of the whole, under the crown, but it is just a bunch of constituencies under the Crown in Parliament at Westminster. In exists as an administrative unit. It does not exist, as such, in democratic terms at all. Let alone as a sovereignty.
(Glasgow Cathcart exists, as a parliamentary constituency. Scotland, like England, Wales and Northern Ireland, doesn't. The parliament in Holyrood exists as democratic window dressing to the administrative devolution of powers that existed before 1999. These powers are loaned, not sovereign in themselves. Again, ask a lawyer.)
Unwritten results of old wars and horse-trading aside, the deeper crisis afflicting this pre-democratic polity of ours is the decision by its rulers that democracy, in the sense we have understood it, has rather had its day. Among those in the know, ever since Alan Greenspan, architect of the nineties and noughties speculative boom and bust, went into Bill Clinton’s office the day after his inauguration in 1993 and told him to forget everything he had promised by way of state action to improve the lives of the population during the campaign, the world’s elite have operated their casino on a post-democratic basis.
The market, Greenspan told Clinton, has replaced the polity as the arena of free choice. Extend participation in the market place and you serve freedom better than any occasional plebiscite. Wealth will accumulate hugely for the elite, while the extension of credit will mean that everybody can play within limits set by the rule makers of the market. The rule makers of the market will in every case outrank the rule makers who have been elected in the frankly antique exercise of “democracy.” There are laws in draft and about to come into place that will enshrine the interests and legal status of transnational corporations so that they will forever be able to ignore the merely voted for laws in the localities in which they happen to find themselves and sanction any government who attempt to stand up to them.
Underpinning this bleak enthronement of the dismal science, this sovereignty of the market, is the exhaustion and corruption of the Enlightenment Project. Smart people don’t believe in anything anymore. They talk about the Wisdom of Crowds, they talk about the money markets. They don’t talk about freedom and justice and truth. I should feel embarrassed even to type the words. Such ideas are fine for the public prints, but proper grown up folk only ever talk about power.
And it is this power, as ever, in its modern, weary guise, that guides the flow of what Kurt Vonnegut called “The Great Money River”, with that flow of capital being the only good, the only value that anyone believes in. Everything else is dust and ashes.
In this weary atmosphere of nihilism and wealth accumulation, the words “In Scotland, the People are sovereign” are not only treasonable, they are revolutionary. In six words, they potentially upset everything, like the five words from the beginning of the democratic era : “all men are created equal.” They are a throwback, an absurdity, a joke. A slogan. Aren't they?
If we vote for them, on September the 18th, then we are not merely upsetting the apple-cart of our local elite, we are denying the very structure on which the glorious revolution of 1688 was founded, and of which the Treaty of Union was the capstone. We are fatally undermining the deal that built the Empire and that sustains the unrepresentative exercise of power in these islands and well beyond.
We are darting at the heart of the elite everywhere. What’s not to like about that?