The West Lothian Question Answered: a commonwealth of sovereign states

The problem is how you can have Scottish MPs voting in Westminster on matters that affect England, when Scotland has its own parliament to deal with the same matters; yet if they are forced to abstain, you could have a government some of whose supporters are excluded from legislating on the manifesto it was elected on.

Why not take a leaf out of Europe’s book? If Europe is a community of sovereign nations who have pooled certain powers by agreement through treaties, why should we (in the British Isles) not do the same?

1. Dissolve the UK parliament (so doing away with the House of Lords)

2. Let each constituent country – England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland (or even a united Ireland – who knows? they might want to join) together with crown dependencies such as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands – have a wholly sovereign parliament with tax-raising powers, elected by those who live there, which orders all the affairs of its territory, subject to the exceptions noted below.

3. Let each constituent parliament delegate a person or persons to attend a council which will agree matters of common interest to this commonwealth of nations; if need be, they can be allocated in proportion to the constituent members. This council will decide such matters as defence, foreign policy and fiscal policy (to the extent deemed necessary for a shared currency). The matters that are remitted to the Council will be for the constituent members to decide. The decisions of the Council must be ratified by the various parliaments, but (as a rule) they will not demur.

4. The constituent countries will make a pledge of mutual succour and support.

5. There will be treaties between the member states on common matters, much as there are in Europe. Borders will be open, trade free, and so on. If thought necessary there will common agricultural and fisheries policies and subsidies on the European model, in line with point 4.

Problem solved. Over to you, Mr Cameron.

Imaginary lines: bounded by consent

I have spoken before about the relation of the real and the imaginary, suggesting that the opposition we commonly make between them does not bear examination; now, prompted by current events – chiefly the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence – I would like to consider the matter again, first in relation to our world, next in relation to ourselves.

Let’s start with some maps. Consider this one (click to enlarge):


It shows what would have been Kurdistan had the Treaty of Sèvres been ratified in 1920, a country comprising territory drawn from present day Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. But the treaty was overtaken by events and never implemented; as a consequence, the Kurds, a numerous people with their own distinct culture, have no country that can be found on the map below (click to enlarge):


That is a reasonably current political map of the world, though if you look closely, it does not show South Sudan as a separate country; and quarter of a century ago it would have looked very different, as countries such as the Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) and Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan would all have been shown as part of the Soviet Union, while all the Balkan states – Slovenia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia – would have been shown as Yugoslavia, while Czechoslovakia would have been a single country. Depending on the outcome of Thursday’s referendum, it may need to be changed again, in a couple of years, to show Scotland as a separate country.

Now, many of the countries in that list did not reappear on the map without considerable bloodshed, loss of life and material destruction, so there is no doubt that those lines and colours represent something that has real effects; yet only because we allow it to be so – the great majority of the earth’s population (by which I mean the non-human part) pay them no heed at all – to the birds and bees and beasts and fishes the world is like this, a number of undifferentiated unnamed landmasses of varying terrain surrounded by a great deal of water and capped above and below with ice (click to enlarge):


The political map of the world is, in effect, the picture of an extraordinary work of the imagination: nothing that it shows is actually there. It represents an imaginary consensus that we have (more or less) agreed to abide by.

You will rightly protest, ‘when did we agree to it? when did we give our consent?’ and in one sense that is fair enough: it may be, as Burns avers, that ‘Freedom an Whisky gang thegither’ but borders and consent seldom do. Take that line shown on the first map, dividing the French Mandate of Syria from the British mandate of Iraq – that is the (in)famous Sykes-Picot line, drawn in 1916 by Mr Sykes, an Englishman, and M. Picot, a Frenchman, without reference to the people living in either territory (the same line is currently straddled by the bloodthirsty and barbarous forces of IS, seeking to establish a territory carved from present day Iraq and Syria).

The Sykes-Picot line is by no means exceptional: the bounds of most of the countries in Africa were similarly created, to suit their own ends, by European Imperial powers in the nineteenth century – a fact which I am sure contributes to the mindset of many of those currently camped in Calais, desperately seeking any means to cross the channel; they have only got there by flagrant disregard of borders and the conventions that maintain them, generally at great personal risk and hardship. (Many do not make it so far – 2.500 migrants are reckoned to have drowned in the Mediterranean this year alone; and it is shameful that it took diligent searching to find this account of the latest horror – 500 believed drowned last week, after their traffickers rammed their boat – perhaps if we were less preoccupied with our internal boundaries it might have had more prominence) Are the ones who have reached Calais unreasonable in thinking they should not be bound by imaginary lines they had no part in drawing?

But such defiance of convention makes us and our governments nervous: we feel it as a threat to ‘all we stand for’ – that being what the political map shows. It represents the triumph of one set of ideas – the notion of ‘civilisation’ – dwelling in settled communities – over a much older idea that now survives only in pockets, and in the face of much hostility, namely that people are free to wander over the face of the earth, much as its non-human population does.

It is interesting to consider the political world map alongside the question of religious belief. We acknowledge that (in the West, at least) there is a crisis of religious faith: institutions and sets of ideas that long exerted a powerful sway over people’s lives, and in which there was a widespread belief (I mean ‘belief’ in the sense of ‘confidence’ or ‘trust’) have now fallen into decay – a consensus that formerly existed has begun to break up, for good or ill. Yet the imaginary world portrayed by the political map, with its countries, borders, laws, is just as much a matter of faith: it exists only because we assent to it; it has the shape and form it has because we have given it that shape and form, not from any external cause. Whether it keeps that shape or form or changes it for another is a matter of will.

But do not fall into the trap of supposing that imaginary things are easy to alter: you can destroy a city more easily than you can destroy an idea. Our beliefs, of all things, are perhaps least easily changed. But the realisation that they are beliefs, not pre-ordained facts, and that we alone are responsible for them, is an important shift of perspective: once we have made it, we can no longer say ‘that is just the way things are’ nor protest ‘we can’t do anything about it.’

We must see that this is the way we have made things for ourselves, and we are the only ones who can do anything about it (and truth to tell, the only ones to whom it matters a jot: the birds and beasts and fishes don’t mind).

[There is a further stage that I want to consider, and that is whether our beliefs concerning ourselves and our relation to one another and the world are not equally conventional and capable of being reimagined in some better way, but for now, enough]

How to squander a winning hand


If there is an Ignobel Prize for Political Ineptitude, I would like to nominate the ‘Better Together’ campaign in the Scottish referendum debate. How is it possible to start with such a strong hand and play it so badly?

Think of it like this:

You live, let us say, in an ancient property divided unequally: by far the greater part is occupied by a large and numerous family, while your own family and two others occupy parts of the building very much smaller. The property is run communally though each of you has their own living space. There is a shared entrance (an adjoining establishment that used to be part of the same set-up then left has a separate entrance).You all get on well enough even if those of you in the smaller properties occasionally feel your larger neighbour treats your living space as an extension of their own.

Now some of your family are proposing an alteration to these arrangements: they want to drop out of the communal way of doing things and run their own small household without reference to the others. This will involve some degree of restructuring – separate water and power supplies, say – though no-one seems quite sure how much or what it will cost. They propose keeping the common entrance, however, as that seems sensible and practical.

Your family are divided on the point: some are keenly in favour, others against; some are insufficiently engaged by the question to favour either side. In order to decide, the matter is to be put to a vote.

An outsider might think that, human nature being what it is, the advocates of change don’t really have much to offer: at the cost of some certain but unquantifiable disruption, they propose that you go on living in the same house with the same neighbours in more or less the same arrangement, but with some changes to how the household finances are managed (it should be said that whether you will be better or worse off under the new arrangement is a matter of dispute: some say yea, others nay).

Inertia (the current set-up, though capable of improvement – what household is not? – works well enough; has done for years) and a liking for the quiet life (change will undoubtedly involve disruption and a certain cost) should suffice, you would think, to persuade the majority to prefer the status quo; you would see little for those in the largest household, who dominate the present arrangement by virtue of their size, to worry about. Surely they would be best to take a relaxed attitude, sit back and say, ‘well, take a look at what you’ve got – works all right, don’t you think? Still, if there’s a real case to be made for change, let’s hear what it is. It’s not as if you’re going anywhere, is it? We’ll still be here, you’ll still be there, and I expect we’ll get along much as we’ve always done.’

No need, certainly, to become embroiled in a dispute about the common entrance, to insist that if your family votes for change, they’ll need to build their own, because ‘we won’t let you use ours any more: not open to discussion; end of.’ No need, surely, to go around threatening all sorts of dire consequences if there is a vote for change; why not simply ask ‘what more do you think you’ll be getting? I mean, beyond what you’ve got already? do you think it’ll be worth the effort?’

Such conduct will only serve to get people’s backs up, and will probably persuade some who favoured the status quo to think twice about it; after all, no-one likes to be bullied.

And when such a shift in opinion becomes evident, surely it would be better to say, ‘you know what – we’ve thought about it, and we don’t really mind about the door. You can use it if you like, though on much the same terms as now, so we’re not sure how that fits with your notion of doing everything yourself – after all, it’s our door too, and we use it more than you so we’d expect to have the final say. What else was it you wanted again? I mean, besides what you’ve already got?’

Rather that than turn up, lachrymose and inebriated, at a very late hour, promising all sorts of things while pleading ‘Please don’t leave us! We love you! we’d be heartbroken to lose you! We can’t bear to think of life apart! We’ve been so good together!’

After all, it’s not as if you’re going anywhere, is it? You’ll still be in exactly the same place, exactly the same people, doing much the same things – it’s just that now, after these embarrassing displays on the part of the neighbours, you do begin to think you might be better looking after things yourself – after all, if they make such a hash of this straightforward business, how can you trust them in more challenging tasks, like organising pea-soup in a brewery?