I meant in this post just to catch an amusing epigram quoted by the journalist Ian Jack last week:

What’s the difference between a dialect and language? Answer, a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.

But reading the article – on Scotland and the politics of Trident – made me realise there was a more serious point to be captured.

The deployment of Trident at the long-established nuclear base at Faslane is opposed by the SNP and the Greens (and a majority of Scots, not to mention quite a lot of other people elsewhere in the UK). The article’s worth looking at if you have even a passing interest in the politics of Trident, but one thought struck me while reading it.

The Scottish government doesn’t have the powers to prevent the deployment of Trident – “defence policy” is reserved for Westminster – but it does have control over planning, the environment, and transport. There may also be a claim under international law. (These options are reviewed at the end of an article in The Scotsman). It’s looking at these as a way to stop the development.

My thought was: when politics fails, campaigners reach for regulation instead, and these may be effective tools. We’ve seen something similar this week in the conviction of the Metropolitan Police in the de Menezes case, but on health and safety grounds.

But the fact that they have to do this still tells us something about the failure of the processes of political engagement to resolve public differences (as seen from the enthusiasm – possibly short-sighted – with which members of the Scottish Labour Party have attacked the SNP’s stance on Trident.) In turn this speaks to long-standing problems of falling turnout and declining membership of political parties (there was a good review of the scale of this issue across Europe in an article in New Left Review last year by Peter Mair (issue 42, subscription required).

At the same time, the fact that the regulatory processes do exist at local and regional level creates new opportunities for engagement, which has the positive effect of re-invigorating politics, but not necessarily to the benefit of the existing political parties.

In the article, Ian Jack updated the old linguists’ joke for the 21st century:

Question, when is a nation not a nation state? Answer, when it can’t say no to nuclear missiles in its back garden.