From Borgen, with Love – Why independent Scotland needs a written constitution

On June 28th a panel of leading Scottish thinkers and commentators got together at the Scottish Parliament to discuss the possibilities for a Scottish Constitution. The event was organised by the Constitutional Commission. Panelist Kate Higgins, AKA The Burd, has kindly allowed us to publish her opening remarks:

“I realised that with such a large and esteemed panel it was highly likely that anything I could say about a written constitution would be said by others and no doubt said much better.

“So I thought I’d talk to you about Borgen.

“For reasons too boring to relate, I have only just caught up with Borgen.  But my tardiness has been a boon, allowing me to watch the whole series in a succession of evenings.

“And it got me mulling over the importance of a written constitution to an independent Scotland.  Indeed, it is the vital first step to creating the kind of Scotland I’d like to live in, and I’m sure many of you do too.

“For anyone who missed it, Borgen is a Danish political drama that relates what happens when a minority party with a very different leader – one who speaks from the heart and promises a different kind of politics – wins an election and forms the coalition government.

“It’s the story of how the difficulties of holding that coalition together, of how the foibles of human nature create dramas and scandals, and of how events and issues of governing change this idealist and corrupt her during her first year of office.  I use the word corrupt in its widest possible sense, because by the end of the series she has become like all the other politicians, micro-managing, reliant on spin, blown off course by the threat of a malicious and mendacious media.  She loses sight of what matters and what is important – her family suffer the consequences, and her marriage falls apart.  Which is not to blame the woman but a system in which any sign of putting family before duty is a weakness rather than a strength.

“There are more complex themes going on than this but essentially, she becomes the kind of politician the system can cope with.  A system that comprises vested interests, of papers holding sway over public opinion, of grubby little political compromises taking precedence over ideals and principles, of inbuilt intolerance and prejudice, of bullying by big business throwing its weight around to threaten the policies of a democratically elected government, of a police and intelligence service riding roughshod over people’s rights, of a press prepared to destroy lives in order to gain a salacious headline, of the existence of a class – over there, separate from the people – running the show with little separation between the estates, government able to lean on broadcast media to break rules, of power becoming more important than principles and friendships and a political leader drowning and losing sight of her purpose and moral authority throughout it all.

“Sounds horribly familiar doesn’t it?

“But it doesn’t have to be like this.  Now I am not so naive to think that a written constitution by itself can achieve the change we need in our own political culture.  Denmark, after all, has one.  A very good one, as it happens and one that we might want to consider when framing our own.

“And here’s a confession.  I never used to think such fripperies were worth devoting huge amounts of energy to.  Once, when I had political aspirations, I used to think that the point of independence was to do things differently – bread and butter policies that impact on people’s lives daily were the kind of thing I used to think the SNP should focus on.  Often the big debates on constitutional issues left me cold, when I wanted to talk about housing and health and poverty and tax.

“But the late and much missed Allan McCartney who used to be Depute Leader of the SNP taught me the importance of the architecture of governance.  As far back as the 1990s, he led a group to draft a written constitution for independent Scotland.  He was inclusive and expansive, finding room for a wide range of people, from a range of backgrounds, to participate and contribute.  The very tone he set spoke volumes.

“Now, the closer we get, the more I realise how vital his deliberations were.  Embedding values and principles of equality, fairness, tolerance, respect, dignity, democracy, inclusion, transparency and accountability in the building blocks of an independent Scotland is key to creating a new Scotland.

“It at least gives us a chance of overturning everything that is rotten under the current political system and becoming the nation we can be, with the politicians and government we deserve, the opportunities we all crave and the boundaries necessary to ensure that we do not squander nor abuse the powers and resources independence presents.

“A written constitution is the way in which, in one step, we set out our stall to do things differently.  It’s how we can tackle many of the injustices inherent in a system which has evolved over time with conventions and shadowy rules which only the players know and which act to reinforce.  And which allow governance to be conducted in secret and outwith the bounds of democracy and legality, on occasion.

“Now I am not so naive to think that all we need to do is write a halfway decent constitution and we’re sorted.  After all, look at Borgen. Changing the current order of things and becoming the nation we can be takes cultural shift and a real effort, as well as a will to change.  But independence offers that kind of opportunity.  And it starts by embedding in our founding document, the country we aspire to be.  If we get our constitution right, we have a guiding lodestar in our journey to nationhood and to creating a better, fairer society.

“So again, look at Borgen.  Having been buffeted by events, both personal and political, the first ever female Prime Minister re-calibrates.  The speech she delivers to open Parliament takes her back to first principles, with her country’s constitution and belief in her people and the possibilities, as the touchstone.  Emphasising principles of common action and purpose – universality, solidarity, responsibility, unity, she reminds the Parliament she leads what she is there to do, and them too.”

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