“Democracy will not be denied. Our voice cannot and will not be silenced.”
It may shock very few people in 2022 to discover that for Nicola Sturgeon the top priority today, as on every other day, is another referendum. When all you have is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail.
The Supreme Court, a voice for the rule of law and constitutionalism in our country, has found that the SNP does not have a unilateral power to break up the UK. The response from the nationalist movement and its leader is to suggest that democracy itself is about to come crashing down.
The choice of wording from the first minister tells a tale in of itself. Sturgeon and the SNP suggest that we are currently not living in a real democracy. It is a dangerous route to go down.
If you tell people for long enough that they do not live in a democracy, that there is a boot upon their neck, then they will start to believe it – and act accordingly. If you tell people – as the first minister did today – that “the very democracy of our nation depends on independence” then the implication is chilling. If you do not believe that the country you live in is a democracy then all sorts of behaviours become legitimised. Opponents become enemies; contrary voices become traitors and quislings.
The trouble for Sturgeon and the SNP, of course, is that we do live in a democracy. The last decade alone has seen two referendums and seven Scottish and UK-wide elections, all free and open votes. Whatever its flaws, we have democracy coming out of our gills.
More importantly, we live in a liberal democracy. Our political life is defined by more than just the votes that are cast, but also by the norms and institutions – like the rule of law embodied by the independent Supreme Court – that protect diversity and pluralism.
Liberal democracy is a challenging, sometimes uncomfortable political system. It means spending a lot of time arguing over ideas and ideals. It means respecting legal restrictions and challenges that you may find frustrating. When you look around the world at the alternatives, however, it is pretty clear that liberal democracy is the best option we have yet come up with.
It is my opinion that the SNP holds a narrow and distorted vision of democratic values. It is not liberal democracy, but nationalist and populist. It is hostile to independent sources of legitimacy and non-nationalist voices in the media or civil society. Why else is the nationalist broadcaster Leslie Riddoch planning to lead a march on the BBC?
Theirs is the sort of democracy in which, rather than solving problems through debate and competing ideas, the solution is to divide communities up on the false basis of identity.
When nationalists like the first minister talk about “Scotland’s voice being ignored” they want us to accept that Scotland has one voice. It does not.
The people of Scotland have many voices. We are millions of individuals; soft-hearted liberals and red-blooded socialists. Brexiteers and Scexiteers, tartan Tories and the completely apolitical. Every viewpoint you can imagine is included, and they are all “Scottish”, for good or bad. Each of those voices has a vote, and when it comes to our democratic rights, each vote counts just as much as anyone else’s, whether it is cast in Scotland, in Wales, in Northern Ireland or in England.
When the SNP talk about “Scotland’s voice being ignored”, they want us to buy into a narrative in which the only legitimate voice is nationalist, not individual – nor even the voice of local communities, as the SNP’s perpetual assault on council budgets and powers can attest.
It is a narrative in which it is assumed that “we” do not have full democracy as long as we have to share it with people in Carlisle or Swansea – because somehow “we” are irreconcilably different from “them”. And that is really the only question that needs to be answered, today and every other day: are people in Scotland so fundamentally different from people in Wales, Northern Ireland and England that we cannot share a community?
The SNP want us to believe that people in Scotland and the rest of the UK are immutably different and irreconcilable. But if you truly believe in liberal democracy, then you believe that what matters most is not your identity – but the ideals that you put forward. You have to believe that building barriers and cutting off debate is no real solution to our problems.
When I look at the challenges people are facing around the UK right now, I see far more that we share and can learn from one another than that divides us.
There are strikes in Glasgow and in London. There are families struggling with bills in Shetland and in Sheffield. There are people in all corners of the country looking for some sense of social solidarity. We share a real democracy – a political community – with all of them.
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The debates over the best ways to support communities across the UK cannot be reduced to “how do we cut ourselves off from one another”. There is no ideal or principle behind that approach. It is a moral vacuum.
However narrowly you slice your community in the name of nationalism, once you have built up your borders the same problems will be waiting for you. Debates over ideas – not identity – are the only solution.
Liberal democracy is a messy thing. It requires us to respect and recognise one another as equal members of our community, despite our differences. To deny, as the SNP do today, that each one of us has an individual right and voice, not defined by narrow nationalism, is the true denial of democracy.
Alistair Carmichael is the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland