Theresa May giving her speech. Image, 10 Downing Street.
Being a woman, there was some discussion about what she wore. But most missed a key detail. The suit, you see, wasn’t just any tartan. It was what’s sometimes called ‘government tartan’. Or, more usually, ‘Black Watch tartan’. Probably Scotland’s most famous regiment, the Black Watch was founded to calm the Highlands after the 1745 uprising and has been on the front line of British military adventurism for the centuries since. This was not a kitsch nod to tourist tat on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, but evocative of the generations of interwoven history of a Union which conquered the world.
Perhaps it was a sensible choice. If I was a prime minister telling Scotland to ‘get in line or go fuck yourself’, I’d probably wear a Black Watch Tartan suit, too. Or, maybe it was a foolish choice. If I was a prime minister wishing to quell a troubled Northern Ireland, I probably wouldn’t choose the symbology of a regiment which did eleven tours during the Troubles. Or am I reading too much between those green and black lines? Perhaps she just liked the pattern, and was unaware of its meaning. But that tells a story too.
In any case, what Theresa May said was more important than what she wore. She demanded that Scotland – and Northern Ireland and Gibraltar and everyone who voted Remain, or voted Leave but didn’t mean this – get on board with her drastic plan to exit not just the EU, but practically every continent-wide institution she can think of: a proposal more far-out than most in Leave-voting England and Wales say they want, never mind the parts of the union which voted Remain.
Why did a politician usually seen as cautious jump so quickly to such a radical position? Why set out from the outset that “no deal is better than a bad deal”? Perhaps the answer, as Anthony Barnett outlined in October, is ideological: she represents the capturing of Downing Street by the Daily Mail. But perhaps, in part at least, it’s for the simple reason that she understands that her country has little negotiating position and that she is likely to come back from Brussels and Berlin with almost nothing. And what do politicians do when they see stormy seas ahead? They fly the national flag and insist that their country is uniquely positioned to navigate the frothing ocean.
The tone, too, reminded of something: the demand for unity, the nationalism, the insistence that she sets the plan and we follow her orders: no wonder she wore a military tartan, she was commanding us to follow her half a league, half a league, half a league onwards. We are Global Britain once again, resuscitating the glory days and heading forth for one last adventure on the high seas. And if we don’t like it? Ours, it seems, is not to reason why.
Though May did say that she has received a paper from the Scottish government and awaits one from Wales, that she will consider these proposals from the devolved administrations. If nothing else, this provides Nicola Sturgeon with a little time to prepare her response.
But what is increasingly clear is that if and when the prime minister rejects Holyrood’s plan to keep Scotland in the single market, the first minister ought to call an independence referendum.
The case is simple. The people of Scotland voted overwhelmingly against leaving the European Union at all, never mind the single market and customs union. Unless the prime minister offers significant specific concessions in recognition of this, then voters here have a right to decide whether we wish to follow a foolhardy prime minister as she blunders into the valley of death, or to reassess the question asked in 2014. It may have been possible for the results of both the recent referendums to at least partially have been respected. But the prime minister looks increasingly belligerent in her refusal to contemplate any compromise. And that leaves us at an impasse: Scotland can either stick with the result of the 2014 referendum or it can respect the result of the 2016 referendum. It cannot do both.
The idea that such contradictions are resolved by public vote is now well established in Scotland’s recent constitutional history. Unlike England, which has only ever had three referendums, two of which were on David Cameron’s watch, Scotland has voted in six constitutional plebiscites in the last forty-two years, an average of one every seven years for a generation.
Where parliamentary sovereignty in England dates to the seventeenth century, Scotland’s position on the matter is more contested. In the Claim of Right in 1989, 58 of Scotland’s 72 MPs acknowledged “the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs”; a claim which echoed the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320, sometimes seen as an early expression of the idea of popular sovereignty. When MSPs were sworn in to the Scottish Parliament in May last year, many of them, including the first minister herself, declared before swearing their formal oath that “the people of Scotland are sovereign”. The parliament itself was founded on the back of a referendum vote, and the Vow declared it to be permanent – implicitly accepting that its legitimacy stems not from Westminster, but from the people.
None of these arguments have any legal force, as such. But together they do point to a suggestion that the notion that it ought to be the people who are sovereign, rather than parliament, has a long and proud history in Scotland.
The independence supporter in me wants such a referendum to be held when it will be won, and that’s a more complex question I’ll return to another time. But the democrat in me insists that it shouldn’t be about that. Much of me wants nothing less than yet another referendum, with all of the work and debate that entails – and I realise that huge numbers feel similarly fatigued. But this question is not for our first minister or our prime minister, the Scottish parliament or Westminster. It is a question which must be put to the people of Scotland. After all, we aren't a military regiment, honour-bound to follow the folly of our leaders. We have a democratic duty to decide for ourselves.
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