Tomorrow, 18th January, Reddit and English Wikipedia and quite a lot of WordPress and various other online communities, big and small, will be blacked-out from 5am, British time, to 5 again the next morning (midnight to midnight, Eastern Standard Time, or the hours Washington DC keeps). This is a protest against the SOPA and PIPA legislation: more links here. This is not actually a post directly about SOPA and PIPA, which none of us outside the US can actually do anything about anyway aside from note what this legislation is, why the US government is doing it, and, if you’re a geek with a talent for explaining stuff to politicians, writing to your MP and asking to meet with them to explain why threatening a website owner with five years in jail for the 21st-century equivalent of recording a film on your VCR with the intention of watching it over and over again is stupid.
There, I said I wasn’t going to talk about it. Excuse me. I’ll move on.
Why will the Tories fight foul? What does this have to do with US Congress legislating on the Internet?
On ZDNet Government, David Gewirtz writes: 5 reasons why SOPA, PROTECT-IP and other legislative idiocy will never die:
- You can’t really compete against consumer behavior.
- Fear sells.
- There’s a lot of money to be made from fear.
- Politicians need lobbyists.
- Lobbyists have a disproportionate influence on politicians.
First of all, let’s consider: assuming that the Tories want the Union to be preserved, what’s their best means of going about it? Peter Duncan has a very solid set of strategies at ConservativeHome, but mostly they amount to: Let the referendum happen, on the SNP’s terms, let the Scottish politicians be in charge of the campaign to keep the Union, and make every Tory MP who is ever inclined to a sneery anti-Jock remark or two – even one based on party allegiance, about Scottish Labour or the SNP – just shut up til the referendum’s over. Praise Alex Salmond, thank the Scots repeatedly, and if anything’s said, let it be positive praise for Scots and Scotland in the Union. Criticise anyone who carps at the Scots. Don’t fund a campaign, don’t take part in a campaign, just respond whenever asked that you’re for the settled will of the Scottish people and you hope it’s for the Union, and let the vote happen as boringly (on the Tory side) as possible. And the status quo wins.
That’s not going to happen.
To begin with, as Margo MacDonald says (except I think this applies to all the parties concerned) the referendum is being seen more and more as
an objective in its own right, instead of its being seen as merely a tactic which may or may not be used as part of the campaign to establish the form of self-government that Scotland needs and wants
We’re getting a lot of Scots wha haeing and little serious discussion about important issues like currency (recommended read), political goals, and worst of all, who owns Scotland’s oil. Instead we’re getting a lot of cavilling about does Holyrood have the right to hold a referendum, and who gets to decide the date and the questions, and even where are the meetings going to happen.
None of this matters.
You can’t really compete against consumer behavior
During the run-up to the last Holyrood election, Alex Salmond committed publicly to holding a referendum on independence in the second half of the next Scottish Parliament, if the SNP was in government. The SNP won a majority, so the referendum has a democratic mandate. Margo MacDonald again:
I believe the Holyrood parliament has the right to organise the processes of the referendum because a mandate was sought and received by the SNP to this end. None of the other parties contesting either the Holyrood or Westminster elections received such a mandate. Legally, there is an argument about who has responsibility, but in my view it is irrelevant because the people’s mandate is superior to a law made in parliament or the law courts. I very much regret the present confrontation.
It’s possible that Westminster can prevent the referendum from happening (denying the Scottish Parliament the use of the electoral rolls) but only by an undignified confrontation in which they win a battle but ultimately lose the war. The harder Westminster politicians fight against the referendum being organised entirely by Holyrood, the more strongly they make the case for Scottish independence.
This doesn’t mean that interested UKians from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland have no input. Westminster and other interested parties are welcome to join the debate, but as Lesley Riddoch eloquently says:
On the issue of two questions or one – we’ve been debating that since May and would like to welcome London-based latecomers to the ongoing debate. On the issue of the binding nature of the result being null and void unless the referendum is held by a certain date (the sunset clause) – jings. This really is casting the Scots into their own personal Groundhog Day where no-one but us seems to remember the similar 40% rule introduced like a belated spanner in the democratic works by a Labour MP before the 1979 devolution referendum. In effect all that “yes but no” mechanism achieved then was to let Scotland be devastated by full force Thatcherism, delay devolution by 20 years and set up precisely the suspicion and mistrust of Westminster politicians that helped the SNP win a landslide victory last May. Doh.
The referendum is going to happen, in autumn 2014, and with the questions settled by the usual process of Scottish legislative consultation and committee. There’s nothing Westminster can really do about it, and the more stushie they kick up, the higher the turnout there will be, and the more likely it is that the independence option wins.
The strategy of those who realise they cannot stop the referendum from happening is to make people afraid of the consequences. This started out at the beginning of January with declarations that Salmond was feart of having the referendum, but mostly at the moment the scaremongering is financial, ranging from George Osborne declaring that Scotland won’t be permitted to stay on the pound sterling (it’s a lot more complicated than that) to pundits declaring that independence will be the ruin of Scotland, though there’s some angry-abuser style talk about how the English will vote to kick the Scots out.
This will only get worse as the months count down to the referendum. I don’t know how many scary things Westminster politics and press corporations between them can come up with, but I can say that the fearmongering stories are only going to get bigger and CGI’d in more realistic detail.
There may be an atom of truth in there just for effect, but mostly: we’re going to get a narrative from the British media and the Westminster polity that independence is something we should be scared of, and a narrative from the SNP and the Scottish media that the Union is something we should be scared of, and the thing is: Neither narrative has to be true to seem damnably convincing.
There’s a lot of money to be made from fear
The 2014 independence referendum isn’t just news. It’s history in the making, if the Scots vote yes, and it’s just another 1979 if the Scots vote status quo, and it’s another 1999 if the Scots vote devo-max, and potentially it’s a mega-lawsuit if David Cameron maintains to the bitter end that he’s convinced Holyrood had no right to do it. It’s reality TV. It’s a huge sinking cruise ship with the captain arguing about whose fault it was that there was an uncharted rock. It’s oil and debt. Who wins if this goes down in a tangle of cross-stories about who should be afraid of what and whose fault the banking crisis was and who gets the oil and what happens if Nessie rises from the deep?
A calm, sensible, reasonable, and informed discussion will benefit nobody much but 99% of the people of the UK. The screaming headlines, the macho poses, the alarmist statements – these are electoral statements from Unionist parties directed at their English voters, or blatant fearmongering for profit in the media.
We can’t stop them screaming at us. We should have the conversation anyway. Independence, devo max, status quo? Lesley Riddoch again:
The idea we can discuss Scotland’s future for two and a half years without seriously considering any constitutional arrangements bar the two “extremes” – independence and the status quo – is ludicrous. The very difficulty of finding a suitable form of words for devo max demonstrates exactly why it must appear as a referendum question. Without the forensic scrutiny that inclusion on the ballot paper brings, devo max will remain a tempting but fuzzy alternative and will prompt an epidemic of proxy voting in the “clarity-providing” single question referendum.
Politicians need lobbyists
For real: There are considerable financial vested interests that may potentially lose if Scotland votes for independence and quits the Union. Scotland leaves with a share of the national debt proportional to the population (8.5%) and Scotland’s new territorial waters as an independent state hold all of what’s now the UK’s oil. The banks that were once Scotland’s in fact as well as name have been largely nationalised by Westminster, and failed because of financial decisions made by the City of London: there’s no legal way to pass the problems of the former Bank of Scotland and Royal Bank of Scotland on to an independent Scotland. The financiers of the City have a major problem if Scotland becomes independent, and the financiers provide half of the Conservative Party’s funds.
Yes, there’s actually a much better chance of Scotland voting to stay in the Union if there’s no sign that the Tories are fighting to stop independence, but I’m not sure that anyone at the Tory HQ could sensibly make that case to their funders: “We’re not doing anything to achieve the result you want, because us not doing anything will better achieve the result you want.”
Lobbyists have a disproportionate influence on politicians
PS Actually, I’m pretty sure all of the Westminster parties are going to fight foul. But the Tories are going to be most single-minded about it, partly because of who owns them, partly because it is in the nature of rich white uber-privileged men to believe that whatever they want, is right.
Update, 3rd September:
Over 7 months later, Ian Smart outlines some obvious fight-foul strategies for (what we now know as) the Better Together campaign.