Jim Slaven of the James Connolly Society highlights some of the publicly unacknowledged features of the 2014 referendum, how they fit into the British ruling class strategy to maintain its rule over these islands, and a new challenge to this in Ireland.

The deal between Alex Salmond and David Cameron on the arrangements for the 2014 constitutional referendum has been widely welcomed. Most commentators have focussed on process issues such as timing, number of questions or votes for sixteen and seventeen year olds but there was also a substantial political battle being waged in the run up to what the SNP seem determined to call the Edinburgh Agreement. This political battle saw the UK state attempt to draw very narrow terms of reference for the debate around constitutional change and independence. Since the SNP achieved a majority at Holyrood the UK state has concentrated on two key strategic areas, one specifically about the debate in Scotland and one with broader UK wide implications.

Firstly the UK state has set out to limit the nature of the constitutional and political change available to the Scottish people. Indeed former Prime Minister John Major very helpfully set out the basis on which the UK state wished to discuss constitutional change in a key (if under reported) speech on the issue last year. In the speech Major argued, Why not devolve all responsibilities except foreign policy, defence and management of the economy? In other words Major was outlining what he considered essential to the continued existence of the UK state.

In the intervening months the SNP have declared that after a Yes vote the British military will remain, sterling will remain (with the Bank of England as lender of last resort), membership of the NATO nuclear alliance will continue and to top it off the leadership overturned SNP policy to hold a referendum on the future of the monarchy and announced their ‘enthusiastic’ support for a sectarian monarch continuing as Scottish (and UK) head of state. So while SNP strategists talk of triangulation and neutralising difficult issues or policies, it is also clear that the terms of reference for the debate around what independence means, and what it can deliver, have been drawn very narrowly indeed. One consequence of this is it leaves the SNP unable to advance an aspirational case for independence.

Secondly the UK state has attempted to limit the nature of constitutional debate to one about government functions in Scotland alone. This means the debate focuses on government power and not state power. Instead of debating a new democratic beginning for the people of Scotland, it becomes a prolonged negotiation over which government functions will be based in Edinburgh and which will remain in London. Instead of allowing the peoples of these islands the opportunity to choose a new and radical alternative to the union’s failed political structures and economic orthodoxy we are reduced to choosing flags. In fact it’s worse than that. We are choosing which flag flies under the crown, which flag flies on British military vehicles and which flag is on our pound sterling.

Ratchet effect

All of this serves to obscure the fact that the UK state is actively seeking to reconfigure itself for the twenty first century. After recognising that the unitary state model was unable to hold we had Tony Blair’s devolution-all-round policy. Offering different devolved institutions different powers led to an inherent instability and the inevitable demand for more powers. Fearing a ratchet effect, where one devolved institution after another demands ever increasing powers, the state is now seeking to regain the initiative by establishing long term accommodations with constitutional nationalism. Initially by granting Wales more powers following last year’s referendum and now by addressing SNP’s demands for Dominion status in 2014.

There is of course one major gap in this attempted British recalibration: Ireland. Having agreed to constitutional referenda in Wales and Scotland, and even to a planter’s poll in Malvinas, David Cameron went so far as to claim ‘We support self determination and act as democrats’ which is news to the rest of the world. However when nationalist parties in Ireland called for a so called ‘border poll’, which is part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the British government was quick to insist no such poll will take place. This is significant because under the terms of the GFA only the British Secretary of State can call such a poll.

Such a partitionist solution, in the gift of the UK state and subject to their veto, is clearly an affront to democracy. What is required is not a vote in the British occupied 6 Counties about whether to join the 26 Counties but for the Irish people as a whole to vote on the constitutional future of the nation. The present economic and political conjuncture presents the Irish people with many challenges but also with an opportunity to recast the island’s political landscape. It offers the potential to end the gombeen politics in the Free State which has seen the 26 Counties crippled by a corrupt political elite’s adherence to right wing economics. It also offers the potential to end once and for all Britain’s occupation of the 6 Counties with all its tragic consequences. An all Ireland vote on the establishment of a new 32 Republic as envisaged in the 1916 proclamation, in other words a republic which would establish ‘Equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens’ and ‘pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally’.

While it may not suit the UK state (or nationalist political parties) any debate about Scotland’s constitutional future is a debate about the future of the UK state and must include discussion of Britain’s continued occupation of the six counties and the resultant democratic deficit. For those of us seeking radical change it must include opposition to the British military occupation of the six counties and the continued use of repressive, anti democratic measures such as Diplock (no jury) courts. It must also include support for the right of the Irish people to determine their own constitutional future without outside interference or impediment. One Ireland – One Vote.


  • “After recognising that the unitary state model was unable to hold”

    This is an excellent article and the small point I am going to raise does not in any way detect from this. However, the UK has never been a unitary British state, but has always been a unionist state that recognises the existence of subordinate nations – Scotland (1707), Ireland (1801) and Wales (1954), and since 1921, part of the Irish nation – Northern Ireland. Conservative unionists have usually opposed political home rule/devolution measures (except after 1921, when they accepted Stormont as a ‘Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People’) but acknowledged administrative devolution for the constituent nations of the UK. After the abolition of Stormont in 1972, the majority of conservative unionists arrived at a political position of support for ‘administrative devolution all-round’ – for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Liberal unionists though have supported political devolution. As Jim highlights, after facing the combined challenges of the irish republican struggle and the largely constitutional national challenges in Scotland and wales, the British ruling class has settle for political devolution all-round.