We must not accept Westminster sovereignty as a given

The big events of Scottish politics used to be Westminster by-elections.

Prior to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, these gave the opportunity for Scotland to bring home – if only for three or so weeks – the type of political debates that nearly always took place elsewhere.

My most intense involvement in such exciting spectacles as either a party office bearer or staffer – and they were spectacles, played out in front of a visiting London-based political press corps which rarely crossed the Border – started with the second Govan by-election in November 1988 and continued through another six until Paisley South in 1997, which was the last before Holyrood was vested.

After 1999, they were of much less significance, as the focus of Scottish politics moved to the normal epicentre of such things.

A domestic parliament was established – albeit one that is still without all the powers needed to address Scotland’s needs and without the ability to apply all our resources to that task as well.

Those powers still lie at Westminster, and those resources are still being misused there. Consequently, it would be wrong to take our eye off that particular ball just yet.

Having a strong campaigning presence south of the Border is vital, and I look forward to the next iteration of that.

Change is the only constant in politics, no matter how difficult it can be for individuals. I know because I have been there.

Of course, the hard reality is that the core of Scotland’s constitutional problem lies amongst those green and red benches by the Thames because of their absolute adherence to the daft doctrine of Westminster sovereignty.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau pointed out that, even in his time, the people of England were only free when choosing their MPs.

That was, as Elliot Bulmer has commented, because, by the act of election, the power that they possessed went out of their hands and into the institution of Parliament which reigned supreme, using the name of the monarch as the fig leaf.

Westminster sovereignty asserts that no power is or can be greater than that exercised by Parliament via the government of the day and this power cannot be bound, even by predecessor governments.

Devolution was a delicate dance around that flawed doctrine.

It was devised in what now seems another political age in which ambiguity and compromise allowed the transfer of powers – albeit on Westminster terms – to other institutions, which included not just the devolved parliaments, but also those of the European Union.

Westminster sovereignty was not altered by such things, but those who devised them hoped that no one would really notice.

If the Scots or Welsh pushed the matter too far, then the law could be used to put them back in their box. Because Westminster sovereignty meant that it would always be the judge and jury, using legislation it itself had devised.

But, as with so many things, the moment of truth came with Brexit.

For Brexiteers – who now run UK politics – restoring what they saw as wrongfully eroded Westminster sovereignty was at the heart of their project, yet what would be the point of taking power back from Brussels if it was still ebbing away to Edinburgh or Cardiff?

Thus, Brexit was as much an anti-devolution construct as an insular backwards-looking anti-European one and is increasingly dangerous in that regard, as the current passage of the Retained EU Law Bill shows.

That is all summed up in those appalling words of the Secretary of State for Scotland to Deidre Brock some weeks ago – “suck it up”.

That is what Westminster sovereignty actually means today – just suck up whatever Westminster says and does because you have no right to oppose it, and if you try, we can – and will – beat you every time.

Westminster finds that just fine because Westminster sovereignty is not just the fixed belief which underpins the Tory’s patronising, and offensive approach to Scotland – demonstrated again this week by the lazy and arrogant Penny Mordaunt who seems to think that she can teach others about government despite her and her colleagues’ woefully poor track record – but is also the foundation stone of those supposedly “new” proposals from Gordon Brown and Keir Starmer.

These already weak ideas could only mean something, no matter how little, if they were framed around an acceptance that Westminster sovereignty was an out-of-date and out-of-time concept that was going to be overturned.

In other words, if the UK under any Labour government was aiming to be a modern country with a modern, person-centred, written constitution. Which it isn’t.

So, without accepting that the notion of Westminster sovereignty is done and that popular sovereignty – power lying always with the people, which is the Scottish way – should replace it, then nothing that is promised by any Westminster party or politician can deliver us the right to make our own decisions in all the areas that count.

And especially not in a way that ensures accountability to our own citizens. Not to a parliament and government we did not elect.

In fact, Westminster sovereignty actually ensures that such a parliament can – and as we have seen, will – overturn any initiative, rescind any law and refuse any request we make without even having to give a reason.

For example, tax and regulatory plans from Holyrood would still have to be approved elsewhere in case they affect others – such as England – but we would have no reciprocal say.

Granting legal personality to Scotland to allow international agreements on devolved areas would be negated if it cut across Westminster policies whilst rejoining the EU and removing nuclear weapons from our soil would remain as impossible as they are today.

That is why we must never accept that Westminster sovereignty is a given in the governance of Scotland.

To become independent, we must challenge it whenever we suffer it, and that fight should always be taken directly and vigorously to where it still holds sway – Westminster itself.