The Good Ship Britannia Sinks Below the Waves: Scotland, Brexit and the Thoughts of Tim Shipman

Gerry Hassan

Bella Caledonia, June 13th 2018

The events of the last two days have shown how the British establishment, political classes and their supporters view the UK. There is the contempt and chaos in the Brexit process; ‘Taking Back Control’ has come down to running roughshod over parliamentary processes, Henry VIII powers, with Scotland being treated with the disdain of a mere fifteen-minute non-debate on the key Brexit bill. Similarly, crocodile tears for Northern Ireland were shown to be empty – with no debate and reference in yesterday’s session of mammoth votes for concerns about the border and the so-called ‘backstop’.

The reactions of our commentariat have been just as revealing. This is Tim Shipman, Political Editor of the Sunday Times and his description of devolution:

Powers were always owned by London and devolved down. They were never, and could never be, owned by Edinburgh. They’ll be devolved down again but legally they are in London’s gift. If you have a country, that’s how it works. You may not wish to be part of UK, but win a referendum.

This is the unvarnished truth about the nature of power in the UK, What the establishment doesn’t want to say – unless it has to remind us or has a temper and is a bit annoyed. In a literal sense, he is of course, completely right. The Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Irish Assembly (when that is up and running), are all creations of Westminster statute, and thus not sovereign and are open to being abolished by the Westminster Parliament. Only Westminster is ‘sovereign’: that magical mumbo-jumbo term which is rooted in some distant past of Albion and the divine right of kings. That is ultimately where the idea of sovereignty originally came from, and why our Executive has ‘Crown powers’ – powers that were once held in the hands of an absolute monarch, and which include the right to declare war and other such fundamentals.

If you think this is bad Shipman was only just getting started and was on a roll, telling us what he thinks. Here he is – illustrating that he has no understanding of the nature and composition of the UK:

I’m not clear why Scotland should be regarded as more important than, say, Manchester. It is the SNP who presume that it has some saintly status.

The UK is a union of four nations: a partnership supposedly born of respect, equality and mutual understanding. Shipman missed these basic facts, which the UK Government and ‘Better Together’ rolled out nearly every day in our indyref, and instead, considers Scotland the equivalent of a great city like Manchester. No disrespect to Manchester, but Scotland is a legally defined nation with its own laws and legislature, whereas Manchester is a proud and glorious city and city region. Big difference that, Tim.

Next is the following statement with the most basic factual error:

Again, why does a corner of the country count for more than other parts of Britain with 4 million people? Simply not true to say its sidelined. Scotland and Northern Ireland have hugely disproportionate influence.

Scotland does not have a population of four million, but 5.4 million. That means Tim is out by a factor of 35% – a bit of a margin of error. And if anyone is feeling charitable and thinking anyone can make a mistake over the odd million or 1.4 million, or even that he mixed up the number of people with voters, he continued in the same vein. The SNP’s protest he claimed was ‘from an entity which has half the population of London’. Fact: Scotland’s population is 5.4 million; Greater London’s population is 8.8 million – only two million people short of being twice the size of Scotland.

That’s not a great set of thoughts from one of the most senior, and in many circles, respected journalists on the British political scene. His commentary on the SNP protest in Prime Minister’s Questions shows his contempt:

It was a ludicrous stunt. They clearly wanted to be thrown out. Their behaviour was like a class of six year olds. They’ve utterly failed to make the constructive contribution they promised.

Shipman’s two books on the Brexit vote (‘All Out War’) and the 2017 UK election (‘Fall Out’) are the most comprehensive accounts of the two biggest domestic British political stories of the last couple of years. They contain insights, nuance and analysis of all the key players and issues, and even give the impression that Shipman understands that British politics is about more than Westminster. We now know that this was nothing more than an act. Shipman has let his inner, true feelings out, and that he believes British politics is only about Westminster, and everything else is just appearance, pretence and decoration.

This is serious stuff in serious times. In many ways we should thank Shipman for his honesty, for we can now say that all the stuff about a partnership of equals and respect is just mood music, and that when the chips are down, the UK political establishment shows its colours and its basic intolerance, even contempt, of places like Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

All of this requires that the above is understood and sinks in, but that Scottish opinion doesn’t act in the black and white and dismissive, condescending ways the British establishment do when pushed.

For example, to describe Westminster’s mindset as ‘So, you’ll have had your devolution’ as Iain Macwhirter did today is not the whole story, as he goes on to imagine the making of a new post-Brexit ‘new unitary British state’ in which ‘devolution … has effectively been abolished’. Neither this new unitary state or the complete end of devolution is going to happen, and instead we are in for a time of confusion, political and legal conflicts, an increasingly active judiciary, and a constitutional mess that we somehow have to navigate.

Devolution was never about transferring real power to Scotland or elsewhere, but we are way past such constricted versions of power and legitimacy. Political power in Scotland doesn’t sit in Westminster or even the Scottish Parliament, it rests with the people, and not due to some ancient myths such as what happened in Arbroath in 1320, but because the people, Yes, No and don’t know, collectively spoke and changed our country in the long indyref campaign of 2011-14. ‘We are the people’ were the words spoken by Canon Kenyon Wright at the signing of the historic ‘Claim of Right’ in March 1989: not an exclusive or triumphalist claim, but words which were maybe a hope then, but which have come to pass: of a people knowing and feeling the power we have.

Similarly, we have to be wary of thinking – because the house of Westminster is falling apart and the idea of Britain with it – that we need to launch our lifeboats imminently. If, as looks likely, the good ship Britannia is sinking below the waves threatening to take all of us with it, we really need to organise and plan how we leave the shipwreck. That is why in such serious times it is highly unlikely that there will be an indyref before 2021. Theresa May will not grant one, we aren’t going to have an advisory vote, and what would happen if a vote were held now and the Scots as existing polls show voted narrowly to stay in the UK? That would mean the lifeboats were cancelled and we went down with the ship.

Illusions about what the United Kingdom is are being laid bare every day in hundreds of ways. This is a warrior state which has been shaped by imperialism, colonialism, crony capitalism, and an utter contempt for its own citizens. We are playing for high stakes in the last days of Britannia and that means not indulging our own short-term fantasies of imminent escape, but being calm, serious, making detailed plans, and recognising our collective power as a people. There will be no going back on that and people need to have a confidence in the long revolution we have created.