When the history of the independence movement is written, and should the 2014 referendum result in a Yes vote, last night may be celebrated as one of those iconic “Portillo moments” about which the victors ask each other “Were you there?”
Like the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club, in the future the number of people claiming to have been watching last night’s episode of Newsnight Scotland may one day eclipse the population of the country. The BBC programme featured perhaps the most spectacular on-air implosion of a British politician that we’ve ever seen, wherein a senior Labour MP and Commons Select Committee chairman embarked upon a suicidal and sustained diatribe of thuggish, juvenile petulance the likes of which – well, let’s not spoil the fun if you didn’t see it. Take a look for yourself, from 1m 44s.
We’ve painstakingly transcribed the entire incident for posterity below, just in case you don’t believe the evidence of your own senses the first time. We’ve also added some analysis of our own, in red, because there’s a lot to take in and it’s easy to miss bits. (Regular readers will recognise this Labour tactic.) See you down there.
ISABEL FRASER: Well I’m joined now by Ian Davidson, who chairs the Scottish Affairs Select Committee. Thank you for coming in, Mr Davidson. It is a matter of fact, legally, that there is no knock-down argument on either side, and you could lose this if you go to court.
IAN DAVIDSON: No. I don’t think that is the case, actually. The overwhelming balance of legal opinion that we received, and I must admit I’m not a lawyer, was that it’s absolutely clear that the responsibility for the constitution, the relationship between Scotland and England, lies with Westminster, and that was quite specifically in the Scotland Act that was agreed by the Scottish people in the referendum in 1997.
[BZZZT! Hold on there, tiger. The referendum was NOT in fact on the Scotland Act, the Bill for which which wasn’t even drafted until 1998 – that is, the year after the referendum. So anyone claiming the 1997 vote was a mandate for the Act’s specific contents, as Mr Davidson expressly does here, is empirically and indisputably lying. The referendum offered devolution on a limited and exclusively take-it-or-leave-it basis. There was NO option for constitutional responsibility to be given to the then-prospective Scottish Parliament, so the fact that voters chose the only form of self-government available to them on the ballot paper cannot be deemed an expression of support for that particular form as opposed to others.]
Now, I do understand of course that if you pay lawyers enough, they will argue a contrary case.
[Which lawyers are currently being paid to offer a contrary opinion? Mr Davidson’s assertion borders on libel against those legal professionals who have published views on the subject which are at odds with his interpretation.]
No lawyer that we have come across at all says that the Scottish Government has got the power to conduct a referendum on their own. The most that they will say is that it’s an arguable case, as your speaker there said [Andrew "Lallands Peat Worrier" Tickell, in a short recorded segment preceding the interview], which means that it would end up being disputed in court.
IF: Right… that is quite an astonishing proposition, to say that the lawyers who are engaging in this who give the alternative viewpoint are doing it because if you pay a lawyer enough they’ll say anything. But two of the names -
ID: Your audience would agree, your audience would agree that if you hire a lawyer to fight a case for you he will fight that case, that’s the point of paying lawyers.
[Again, we're not aware of any lawyers who have been hired or paid to present the view opposing Mr Davidson's. To the best of our knowledge, all of those doing so have done so of their own free will and without payment. And of course, if lawyers simply say whatever their clients want them to say, why doesn't this equally apply to the lawyers supporting Mr Davidson's position?]
IF: Well, the point of the law in all of this is, there isn’t case law, we don’t know, you have eminent lawyers – Neil Walker at Edinburgh, Aileen McHarg at Strathclyde – you know, both saying “Actually, this could go the other way, because we don’t have the case law in this”. The point is, if you do not -
ID: But none of them say that it wouldn’t end up in court if the Scottish Government tried to do it on its own, that’s the point. None of them -
IF: Well, no, it WOULD end up in court if someone triggered that action, obviously, but that’s not the point. The point is whether you would win or lose in court.
ID (continually trying to interrupt): Well no it’s not, you see, no it’s not. Because the point is we want to have a speedy referendum. My side want to get this resolved, we want to have a referendum, because we think we’re going to win, quite frankly.
[Sound of tens of thousands of Newsnight Scotland viewers spluttering in their seats, perhaps imagining for some unfathomable reason that Mr Davidson’s “side” had in fact spent the 14 years since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament doing everything in its power to prevent a referendum on independence taking place, and stood for election in 2010 and 2011 on a policy of flatly opposing one.]
ID: And we believe that having an agreement between Westminster and Scotland through a Section 30 notice, where there is no dispute about the legality, is by far the best way forward. What we’re opposed to is unilateralism.
IF: Right. Well, if you want that, then legally there is nothing to stop you, tomorrow, putting in process the Section 30 permission. There is absolutely nothing to stop you doing that -
ID: That’s right. I think we should do that. Our committee -
IF: But will you attach conditions to it?
ID: Oh, of course! We will specify, we will specify -
[We never do get to find out what conditions would be "specified", sadly.]
IF: But why “of course”? You must here separate out – before you explain that, you must here separate out the law, in which you could do that, you could get the Section 30 order through at any point, immediately, or you could attach conditions which then – that political decision to attach conditions – is where the problem lies legally. So what you’re doing is, instead of going ahead with a legal solution you attach conditions to it, which is a political decision.
ID: No, I understand that, I mean, I understand that Newsnat Scotland’s position is that the powers should be given to the Scottish Parliament and the SNP should do as they wish, we understand that. The reality is -
IF (plainly outraged): Mr Davidson, that is a ludicrous – I cannot let you continue – that is a ludicrous proposition to say -
ID: Well, I don’t believe it -
IF: I am asking you -
ID: And I’m about to answer you if you won’t interrupt. Let me answer. Let me answer.
IF: I am asking you a perfectly reasonable question that I’m entitled to ask -
ID: Of course. And I’m entitled to answer. And I’ve answered it partly in the way I wanted, and I’m now -
IF: And you’re suggesting that I’ve predicated my question on a preconception about what’s an appro-
ID: Well of course! I mean, that’s a general political view, that Newsnat Scotland is biased in favour of the Scottish Parliament handling all these powers themselves.
[Blimey! It is? Can you point us to any recorded examples of this "general political view"? Also, "Newsnat Scotland"? Really? That's what you're going with as a grown 62-year-old man in a senior political position, is it? Righto.]
Now, our position is not that, you see, our position is that we believe that Westminster have been given powers to deal with this matter by the Scottish people in the referendum. That’s where our legitimacy comes from. Our legitimacy comes from the Scottish people in the referendum. We have therefore got a responsibility to decide how these matters could be, should be dealt with.
[Eh? The 1997 referendum dealt with whether some powers were to be given to Holyrood. It did not "give" any powers to Westminster, because Westminster already possessed all those powers. And the referendum, as we've already noted, provided NO options by which the powers in question could be given to Holyrood, so there is no democratic legitimacy in their being retained by Westminster. In fact, that's arguably what the 2014 referendum will ask the Scottish people to decide, for the first time in 300 years.]
We have the opportunity if we wish simply to hand over our powers to the Scottish Parliament, but we choose not to do so, and what we are saying in the committee is that the Scottish MPs, and the Scottish Affairs Committee, should have the responsibility for reviewing and supervising and assessing any Section 30 notice that is proposed.
[Did you get that, people of Scotland? These are not your powers, they are "our" - ie Westminster's - powers. You might have voted in a majority Scottish Government which stood on a platform of conducting a referendum, but you'll get whatever Westminster chooses to give you and you'll lump it.]
IF (heroically calm): Right. Mr Davidson, before we continue, it perhaps might be appropriate at this stage if you would like to apologise, to me, for suggesting -
ID: Oh, certainly not!
IF: – for suggesting that I have come into this interview in any way biased against your argument and pro- one political party or the other. Nobody on this programme works in that way, and it is offensive that you should suggest that.
[Aside: can anyone recall the last time a British political interviewer was so angry with their guest that they actually asked for an apology during the interview? We're struggling to think of one.]
ID: Well I have to say I don’t believe that. I have already complained, as has the Labour Party on a number of occasions, about the way in which Newsnat Scotland behaves, and I think you are clearly biased, and have been for a long time, against the Unionist parties, and if that causes you concern then I’m afraid you’ve just got to recognise that politics is about people exchanging views, and you’re not above the fray, and if you want to stand for election, do so, otherwise try and be more neutral!
IF: Well, Mr Davidson, I absolutely reject what you’ve said there, and I think there’s plenty of evidence to refute that, but let’s move on because we don’t have a lot of time. Are you suggesting you derive your mandate from the ’97 referendum?
ID: Yes. I think -
IF: Okay. Let’s then say, your argument is that people going into the ’97 referendum had in their mind whether a future referendum conducted by the Holyrood parliament would be intra- or ultra-vires, and they satisfied themselves to the fact that it would not be. I mean, how then can that referendum possibly relate to -
ID: No. No, no. No no, not at all, I mean, no no no, no, I mean, what, no no -
[THERE’S NO LIMIT! Sorry.]
IF: – the mandate?
ID: But you’ve got to remember that in ’97 there was a whole number of things being proposed, one of which was the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, one of which was the ongoing relationship between Scotland and England – or Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom – and responsibility for constitutional matters. And it was quite clear, because it was debated in Parliament at the time, that responsibility for constitutional matters should lie with Westminster.
[Just a second. So Westminster debated whether Westminster should retain Westminster's power in constitutional matters, and decided that yes it should. Who exactly put the opposing case in this "debate"? The half-dozen or so SNP MPs out of the 650 in the House Of Commons and hundreds more in the Lords, where there's no SNP representation at all? Well, that seems super-democratic. Carry on.]
Now that was what was in the Scotland Act, and that was what people voted for in the referendum. And therefore it’s quite clear that moral authority in this matter does lie with Westminster.
[Huh? Weren't we talking about LEGAL authority, rather than MORAL authority? And exactly how do you get moral authority from a "discussion" process in which one side has over a thousand votes while the other side has six votes?]
IF: Canon Kenyan Wright, who obviously chaired the Scottish Constitutional Convention, he’s writing tonight that “If the Union’s unwritten constitutional claim to have the last word is so inflexible that it proves incapable of recognising Scotland’s constitutional claim, then they are in effect saying that the only way in which Scotland’s people can be sovereign is by independence”.
And that IS the logic of your position.
ID (sighing and shaking head sorrowfully as if explaining a simple principle to a particularly stupid child for the sixth or seventh time): No, that’s not actually, no no, that’s not the logic of my position at all, I’m afraid. My position, and the committee’s position, is that we want to see an agreement between Westminster and Holyrood on how the referendum should go forward, because we believe that it’s in Scotland’s interest to have this resolved as quickly as possible.
We want to have all the issues hopefully debated and agreed between the two Parliaments, but if it’s not possible to get an agreement then ultimately responsibility does lie with Westminster, and we ARE worried that those who fear defeat in the referendum will try and spin this out, either by taking it through a process that will result in legal action or by delaying through a number of other mechanisms.
[So that’s clear. If the SNP doesn’t come round to Westminster’s way of thinking during this “debate”, Westminster WILL lay down the law. This process sounds less like two parties reaching an agreement than blackmail at gunpoint, a “discussion” where the outcome is pre-ordained and to be imposed by force if consent is not forthcoming. We think we begin to understand how Eilidh Whiteford must have felt.]
IF: Ian Davidson, we have to leave it there, thank you very much indeed.
And that was that. We’ve criticised Isabel Fraser on occasion for not always keeping a grip on TV debates, but last night she deserved a medal for retaining her cool in the face of truly outrageous and offensive provocation from a boorish, arrogant imbecile who we wouldn’t have been able to stop ourselves from climbing across the desk and punching to the ground.
Transcribing the interview for this piece it only got more astonishing in its heady blend of mindboggling rudeness and incoherent hubris, as we noted segments that on first viewing had been obscured by the sounds of horrified gasps and the loud clang of our jaws bouncing off the floor. (Mr Davidson’s peculiar grasp of “moral authority” being a particularly striking example.)
But there’s little point in telling you what you’ve just seen and heard with your own eyes and ears. The truly staggering thing revealed by last night’s show is that the Unionist parties thought that (a) such a man was a suitable candidate to head a select committee in the first place, and (b) someone with his track record of crude misogynistic bullying was the right person to go on a political show and be interviewed by a woman unlikely to put up with it.
As nationalists, we are of course delighted that such a galactic-class halfwit is the face of our opponents. We can barely imagine the damage Mr Davidson’s appearance will have wreaked on his case among any undecided voters who witnessed it. We keenly await the damage-limitation exercise that will doubtless be launched today, although in fact we suspect it’s most likely to take the form of a tightly-observed radio silence from Unionist politicians and activists – even the most satanically adept spin-doctor would find it almost impossible to salvage anything from these nine minutes of televised slow-motion car-crash.
(Yesterday, without an inkling of what was to come, we suggested that “The choice of Ian Davidson as the Committee’s chairman… may turn out to be a disastrous error on Labour’s part”. We couldn’t have imagined how eerily prophetic those words would become, or how incredibly quickly.)
What we’ll be watching closely for, though, is whether the Scottish media whitewash it in the way they’ve done with countless other gaffes from those on the Unionist side, such as Iain Gray’s crass insulting of the people of Montenegro or Johann Lamont’s disgraceful fabrication of a non-existent rape case. This time, with one of their own in the firing line, they may not be so eager to hustle the story quickly into a corner.