This week someone told me about their colleague who, having read my contributions on here, says they agree with everything I say, except on the concept of a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) which they believe would be “undemocratic”. So this post is for that person and others who are interested in how “democratic” or otherwise UDI would be in Scotland. I generally think this is pretty important because if – and who knows how big an “if” it is – the SNP (or other Yes-parties) include a commitment to a second independence referendum in their 2016 election manifesto, then the persistent refrain of the pro-unionist media is going to be: “what will you do if Westminster refuses to grant you the legal powers to hold another referendum? Will you just hold a referendum anyway? Or will you jump straight to UDI?” So let’s explore the issue now, in order to prepare for this future round of discursive waterboarding.
First of all, we’ve got to remember that if Scotland was ever close to a possible UDI ‘event’, it would be so in the context of a level of political turmoil as yet unknown to living memory. So when I defend the possibility of such a step, I do so by imagining what kind of chaos we would be experiencing. From BBC journalists telling outright lies about the events at a Yes campaign press conference, to the organising of – frankly sinister – anonymous telephone calls to Scottish pensioners to scare them away from voting Yes, to the farce of the French ambassador memo, the British state has demonstrated that there are no depths to which it will not sink in its efforts to preserve the union. I’m sure (well, pretty sure) that they don’t want to plunge Scotland into chaos, but if they need to, they will. This is the key point: UDI is not about aggressively achieving one’s political aims through whichever route is possible; it is an emergency defensive action aimed at responding to the unacceptable aggression of elite and foreign power. (I specify both “elite” and “foreign” here in order to highlight that there are power-elites in Scotland whose interests lie with the union and its aggressive defence – a defence which is coordinated from Westminster, the parliament of a foreign power.) An appropriate analogy here would be the suspension of some democratic freedoms in Britain during World War II, when faced with the aggression of Nazi Germany. Or, equally, the suspension of similar democratic freedoms in Cuba, when faced with an aggressive economic blockade enforced by the superpower sitting on its doorstep.
Secondly, there is a difference between an “undemocratic” action and an “anti-democratic” action. A little dose of political theory helps here. Imagine an island of a few million people that exists in a kind of anarchy: it has no laws, no government, no democracy. In political theory, this is known as the “state of nature” i.e. human society before there was any government at all (even of an undemocratic sort). When the state of nature is discussed within political theory, the point of the discussion is not to explore (as a historical question) how nation states and governments actually emerged from anarchy. The idea of the state of nature helps us think about a peculiar paradox associated with democracy: if democratic states are governed by democratic processes (such as referendums), then through what process does democracy itself justify coming into being? In other words, if we imagine the island of anarchy, of millions of people unbound by any democratic process, then other than through an act of “undemocratic” imposition by a subset of the total group, how else could democracy come into being here? At the logical core, then, of any democracy is an “undemocratic” core.
The philosopher Slavoj Zizek has made some observations on Middle East politics, which help illustrate the problem:
Many political theorists, from Blaise Pascal to Immanuel Kant to Joseph de Maistre, have elaborated on the ways in which nation-states have manufactured heroic national mythologies to replace and ultimately erase their “foundational crimes,” i.e. the illegitimate political violence necessary for their creation. With regard to this notion, it is true what has often been said: The misfortune of Israel is that it was established as a nation-state a century too late, in conditions when such “founding crimes” are no longer acceptable… The Middle East conflict confronts us with the fragility of the border that separates “illegitimate” non-state power from the “legitimate” state power, since, in the case of Israel, its “illegitimate” origins are not yet obliterated, their effects are fully felt today. When Western observers wonder why Palestinians insist in their stubborn attachment to their land, they demand of Palestinians precisely to ignore the Israeli “illegitimate” state-founding violence. – Zizek, “Why Pragmatic Politics Are Doomed To Fail In The Middle East“
Britain was, of course, created in a historical period when the “foundational crimes” lying at the origins of nation states were less politically problematic, but no less undemocratic for all that (as Tariq Ali observed at the start of last year’s referendum campaign: “no one ever claims that the establishment of the union was democratic”). This leads directly to the third point: no democracy is perfect and although some of the imperfections may be improved upon through existing democratic processes, there may be other (especially constitutional) imperfections which can only be resolved via a return to the “undemocratic core”, the “foundational crime” or whatever.
Is this a licence for any old power-grab? I think not – and to justify this, I return to the distinction I made earlier between “undemocratic” acts and “anti-democratic” acts. An anti-democratic act is one which aims to permanently limit or destroy democracy, whereas an undemocratic act will sometimes be a genuine and honest attempt to be foundational in relation to an anticipated increase or radical gear-change in democracy afterwards. (Of course, it sometimes happens that a political project which initiates an undemocratic act will then prolong the intervention to the extent that the whole project becomes an anti-democratic hold on power – which is a separate, but not unrelated problem, to the one we are discussing here.)
So, to return to the contemporary context, let us imagine that a government is elected to Holyrood with a mandate for a second referendum which is then refused by Westminster (which claims to retain the legal power to permit constitutional referendums). This is not an unlikely scenario – anyone who has heard Cameron speak about the prospect of #indyref2 will have noticed how bullishly he rejects the possibility, not to mention how generally very afraid the British elite is of another referendum. In such circumstances, should the Scottish government press ahead with what would be – at the very least – a legally-contested (in fact, almost certainly illegal) independence referendum? It is not hard to imagine that such a poll could descend into complete farce, with would-be No-voters boycotting the vote in order to rob it of legitimacy – and, note, thereby guarantee the preservation of the union.
If – in Zizek’s terms – it was Israel’s “misfortune” to try and found a nation state a century “too late” when such foundational crimes became unacceptable, then it may become Scotland’s misfortune – in the potential, post-2016 scenario I have outlined – to be forced to come face-to-face with the undemocratic core of the union (in an era when, yes, the direct handling of such politically combustible material is something exceptional). But, equally, Israel has the added complication in that it is trying to found a nation state on land which is already occupied. We don’t have that added complication in Scotland. We are not occupying another people’s land. And our nationalism is a civic nationalism which embraces diversity and immigration. Would it be wrong if – under conditions of extraordinary aggression – we, as a nation, embarked upon an act of self-defence which sought to cut the Gordian knot that binds us to the many lies of this undemocratic union of which it is our misfortune to still be, sadly, a part?