Category Archives: Devolution

Stephen Tierney: Why is Scottish Independence Unclear?

stierneyAs commentators we seem to end many of our contributions to the independence debate with the rather unhelpful conclusion that much remains, and will continue to remain, uncertain; a state of affairs accentuated by recent comments on the prospect of currency union and EU membership. This must frustrate those hardy souls who read to the end of our blogs seeking enlightenment. Perhaps then we owe readers an explanation as to why it is so hard to offer a clear picture of how an independent Scotland will be brought about and what it would look like.

In trying to envisage life after a Yes vote it is natural to begin with the Scottish Government’s White Paper published in November 2013 which, at 648 pages, cannot be accused of failing to set out the SNP’s broad vision for independence. But for several reasons we must treat this only as the start of our quest and certainly not as a definitive template for a new Scottish state.

Here are some reasons why:

1. The White Paper is selective

The White Paper is certainly comprehensive but inevitably offers if not a Panglossian then at least an optimistic picture of the future, using evidence that supports the Scottish Government’s case for economic success and relatively easy transition to statehood. Inevitably many of these claims have been subject to contestation, and since they are dependent upon varying circumstances and the cooperation of other actors, not least the UK Government, they cannot be taken to be the last word on independence.

2. Are we sure there will be negotiations?

This is surely the easiest question to answer. The White Paper not unreasonably assumes a process of mutually cooperative negotiations given the Edinburgh Agreement in which the UK and Scottish governments undertook ‘to work together constructively in the light of the outcome, whatever it is, in the best interests of the people of Scotland and of the rest of the United Kingdom.’ This has recently been restated by a UK Government minister. It can also reasonably be assumed that despite the bluster of the referendum campaign it will be in the interests of the UK to build a constructive relationship with its near neighbour. But there are still many unknowns concerning the negotiation process and its possible outcomes.

3. Who will negotiate?

On the one hand we would expect the Scottish Government to take the lead for Scotland. But let’s not forget the Yes campaign is a broader church than simply the SNP, and different contributors to this, such as the Green Party, will have their own agendas which they would seek to advance in negotiations with the UK. Furthermore, in the White Paper the Scottish Government announced that it ‘will invite representatives from the other parties in the Scottish Parliament, together with representatives of Scottish civic society, to join the Government in negotiating the independence settlement.’ (para 2.7) Who might take part, what influence would these other actors have, and how might their influence re-shape the negotiations? Also, on the UK side different uncertainties present themselves. We assume the UK Government will negotiate for the UK, but with a general election in May 2015 a new government may take a different view of the negotiation process.

4. What if negotiations break down?

An unlikely scenario but one which does add more uncertainty to the mix is the possibility of failure of these negotiations to result in agreement. If negotiations do indeed break down, what then: a unilateral declaration of independence? This possibility has rarely been considered within the Scottish debate but it would raise a new set of issues regarding both the terms of separation between Scotland and the UK, at which point international law would provide some guidance as to the default position, and for Scotland’s status internationally.

5. Will there be a deal?

We can expect a deal at the end, but in light of the ‘personnel’ issues considered at point 3 the terms of any negotiated deal are hard to predict. How many of the goals to which it aspires in the White Paper will the Scottish Government achieve, and on which issues will it have to compromise, not only with the UK but with other parties to the negotiations on the Scottish side?

6. Surely experts can predict the outcome of negotiations?

Given that a UDI is highly unlikely, as commentators we can reasonably focus upon the terms of negotiations, but here voters must be struck by how we suffix our references to the most likely outcomes by restating how many variables are at work. It is no surprise that on the various issues at stake experts will reasonably disagree about different scenarios. As commentators we also have a duty not to enter the debate in a polemical way, using expert knowledge to advance the cause of one particular side. It is important to remain objective, presenting the evidence for the different sides of each argument as best we can.

7. Clarity and simplicity are not synonyms

The subject matter for negotiations could scarcely be more complex – disentangling a state with a highly integrated advanced economy. So many issues will need to addressed together that even listing the topics to be dealt with is a difficult, and inevitably an incomplete, task: the economy, the currency, debt, welfare, pensions, oil and gas, higher education, the environment, defence, the European Union, security and intelligence, borders, citizenship, broadcasting etc. etc. Issues surrounding each of these issues will have to be negotiated. Therefore, there is reasonable disagreement among commentators about the nature of the competence which an independent Scotland would acquire in relation to each of these, and as to the prospects for some degree of on-going cooperation or union with the UK in relation to each area of competence. And even if we commentators can reach some kind of consensus about a particular issue taken in isolation we need to factor in that each is a potential bargaining chip in negotiations. There may well be trade-offs which see some aspects of the Scottish Government’s preferred model of independence subject to compromise in return for other gains.

8. It’s politics, stupid

What would make things clearer? Well the obvious solution to a lot of uncertainty would be agreement between the two governments on a range of issues ahead of the referendum. The Electoral Commission (paras 5.41-5.44) has recommended ‘that both Governments should agree a joint position, if possible, so that voters have access to agreed information about what would follow the referendum. The alternative – two different explanations – could cause confusion for voters rather than make things clearer.’

But this is not going to happen. Uncertainty among voters is an important card for the Better Together campaign. It is simply not in the political interests of the UK Government to work with the Scottish Government to clarify possible negotiation outcomes. And in any case it may not be in the interests of the Scottish Government either should such pre-referendum discussions result in stalemate, thereby serving only to heighten rather than diminish uncertainty before the vote.

9. After independence: designing Scotland’s constitution

Even if negotiations are concluded and independence formally endorsed we will not have a final picture of Scotland’s constitutional future. Scotland will not at that stage have a constitution. According to the White Paper there will be an interim period during which some form of transitional arrangement will be needed. There will then be a Scottish parliamentary election in May 2016, and only after this, according to the White Paper, will a constitutional convention be established to draft a constitution. So many of the proposals set out in the White Paper concerning Scotland’s constitution are contingent upon how this convention is established, how it will draft a constitution, what this will contain, and how it will be ratified (i.e. will it be approved by the Scottish Parliament or by way of another referendum).

And what would the institutions of government in an independent Scotland look like: will the Queen be head of state? Will there be a one chamber or two chamber parliament? Will Scotland have a new constitutional court? The Scottish Government has views on these issues but also accepts they will be for the constitutional convention to determine. And what institutional arrangements would be needed to maintain areas of cooperation or union with the UK? All of these issues will remain to be settled.

10. It takes three to tango

And of course the foregoing issues focus upon Scotland’s relationship with the UK. What of Scotland’s external relations? Issues such as state recognition; succession to international rights, obligations and treaties; and membership of international organisations, all remain to be fully worked out. And most crucially, the European Union presents two huge issues. The first is how Scotland will be admitted to membership, something which remains a focus for debate, not helped by the bizarre interventions of senior EU politicians. The second issue is surely much more salient and the source of more reasonable disagreement, namely the terms of such admission.

11. What is ‘independence’ anyway?

All of these questions raise a larger issue, namely the heavily integrated nature of the modern nation-state and the web of international relations which bind states within Europe. As the details of the Scottish Government’s proposed model of independence emerge, for example in relation to the currency, what is envisaged is in fact the continuation of important relationships with the UK as well as new and close relations with international partners. But clarity on these points is obscured by campaign gaming. The Yes side is reluctant to voice these aspirations in detail since this will invite the ‘we will never agree to that’ response which we have seen in relation to currency union. This will inevitably mean that much of the detail of what the Scottish Government aspires to will most likely remain unstated at the time of the referendum. The challenge for voters then is a broader one: it concerns how they understand the very meaning of statehood and sovereignty in today’s Europe. The reality today is that any new state emerging from within the EU and intending to remain within the EU will, by definition, instantiate a novel form of statehood which delivers independence but not separation. This, a unique state of affairs, is the factor which poses the deepest analytical challenges to political actors, to constitutional theorists and practitioners, and, since a referendum is the mechanism assigned to determine such an outcome, ultimately to voters.

Is there any point in expert commentary?

Yes of course. There are many technical issues which can be clarified. This will not fully explain how Scottish negotiations will go with either London or Brussels but it can make clearer the issues which will be subject to negotiation.

Secondly, much of the uncertainty stems from the political positions of the two sides: Better Together which does not want to suggest negotiations will go smoothly for the Scottish Government; Yes Scotland which claims that they will. However, the UK Government’s position following the hard reality of a Yes vote is likely to be significantly different from that as stated in the heat of the referendum campaign. Again academics must try to disentangle these two different positions. At the same time they can probe the viability of the claims made by the Scottish Government in its White Paper.

In the end some kind of bigger picture may emerge, albeit through a glass darkly. People when they vote will do so with two rival visions of the future in mind. These will not be perfect predictions of what either an independent Scotland or an on-going UK (we must also remember that a No vote also carries many uncertainties concerning the future) will look like in 1, 5 or 10 years’ time, but they will need to make sense to the people casting their votes. As commentators, all we can do is try to offer some objective guidance so that these visions bear closer resemblance to reality than they otherwise might. A modest aim maybe, but no one ever said constitutional change was simple.

Stephen Tierney is a Professor of Constitutional Theory at the University of Edinburgh and Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law.  He is currently ESRC Senior Research Fellow under the Future of the UK and Scotland programme

Suggested citation: S. Tierney, ‘Why is Scottish Independence Unclear?’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (25th February 2014) (available at: http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/).

6 Comments

Filed under Constitutional reform, Devolution, European Union, Scotland, UK Parliament

Neil Walker on Scotland: Hijacking the Debate

NeilLet me lay my cards on the table. I remain inclined to vote ‘no’ in September’s referendum. I put it no stronger than ‘inclined’ in part  because I believe, in  the spirit of democracy – even democracy referendum-style – that those of us who have not signed the party pledge should keep an open mind as long as possible. That, indeed, is one of the reasons  why,  18 months ago,  some of us set up the Scottish Constitutional Futures Forum  and its  accompanying blog. But my reservations are also partly because  recent  events  have fuelled my anxiety about  the climate in which the debate is taking place. They have made me wonder whether the case for independence is getting a fair crack of the whip on the international stage, and have caused  me to ponder the implications of lending my vote to a position that remains so reliant upon negative rather than positive arguments.

I am not talking about the shenanigans over a Currency Union. It may  be a minority position, but I believe both sides have been giving as good as they get on this question, and that neither comfortably occupies the moral high ground. There has always been something  both opportunistic and wishful in the nationalist stance. Sterling, once derided as a busted flush,  is reclaimed as a joint birthright. The Euro, once hailed  as the bright new  monetary dawn, is conveniently relegated to the status of a political  lifestyle choice rather than faced up to as an obligation of EU membership that can, at most, be  deferred.

The Unionist response may be  no more elevated  than this, but is surely ranks no lower. There is an arguable case, if a far from compelling one, that it would be in rUK’s best interest to refuse the  departing Scots a Currency Union. There are certainly risks  either way, and  rUK might well change tack in the cold light of a ‘yes’ vote. But Better Together is being no more narrowly strategic than the nationalists in arguing forcefully for the position that  best suits its immediate interests. It is a position that could backfire – may already be backfiring – as it allows the nationalists to play the victim card, and to point out that, as the residual sovereign in the event of post-yes-vote negotiations, rUK enjoys  the ‘bully’s’  advantage  of  being able to make promises  – or threats – that it can credibly deliver upon in self-fulfilment of  its prophecies and  prejudices. But in the final analysis, the Better Together position, like the nationalist one, is a democratically legitimate one. It is articulated by  elected politicians of various parties in favour of a constituency – the UK – whose  right to retain the decisive constitutional  voice is the very issue at the heart  of the referendum. And while nationalists may proclaim the inconsistency of Better Together’s new position with its previous self-denying ordnance against pre-specification of the terms and conditions of independence, they must also acknowledge that  the Unionist parties, by building a united front on sterling, have at least  answered another widely aired  doubt. For  once they have demonstrated their ability to get their act together and find common voice when it really matters.

The issue of democratic credentials, however,  brings me directly  to the point of my comment: namely that other awkward union, the European Union, and the position of Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, on the subject. Barroso has previously given strong indications of where he stands, so perhaps we should not be too surprised by his remarks on the BBC’s flagship Andrew Marr Show last weekend. The novelty of his latest contribution may only have been one of emphasis, but the tone was nevertheless striking. Apparently the prospects of membership for an independent Scotland, never untroubled in his perspective, are now to be assessed as  “extremely difficulty… If not impossible.”

These remarks have been well publicised. Predictably, they have been seized upon by Better Together as vindicating their long-standing scepticism about an independent Scotland’s EU future, and as further evidence of the emptiness of nationalist promises. But why should anyone listen to Barroso on this topic?  Does he have a legitimate political voice in the debate? Does he speak from a position of legal authority?  Or, regardless of his political or legal standing, does he simply have a good insider argument, and one that we should heed? The answer, on all three counts, would seem to be ‘no’. Why is this so, and why is it important to the integrity of the debate that the kind of intervention Barroso has sought fit to make should be challenged?

First, there is the question of legitimate political voice. Barroso is not an elected politician. One upon a time he was. Between 2002 and 2004 he was Prime Minister of Portugal. Since then he had done two stints and ten years as the unelected President of the European Commission. His position, which he will vacate this year, does depend upon that of two elected institutions – on the  Council ( made up of nationally elected politicians) which proposed him, and on the European Parliament which  was required to approve  his appointment.  Under new rules introduced by the recent Treaty of Lisbon, the appointment of his successor will be subject to an additional  indirect democratic check – namely the requirement that his or her nomination by the European Council should ‘take account’ of the results of the latest European Parliamentary elections. In fact, the last European elections in 2009 already saw a move towards an overtly political style of appointment, with Barroso the chosen candidate of the   European People’s Party.    But none of these developing procedures and practices can make an elected politician out of an unelected public servant. Barroso has no popular mandate, and perhaps some sense of that lay behind his protestations to Andrew Marr, rendered not a jot more credible by their repetition,  that his words did not constitute an attempt ‘to interfere’ in a matter of internal Scottish and British politics.

But even if Barroso represents no electoral constituency, does he, as head of the Commission, nevertheless possess a clear legal authority, or even a duty,  to step into the Scottish debate? The Commission certainly has an extensive legal remit. According to Article 17 of the Treaty on European Union, it ‘shall promote the general interest of the Union’.  Yet in so doing we should understand the Commission’s  role as servants of the Treaty framework rather than its master. Article 17 continues by specifying the Commission’s role in ways that reflect and confirm its status  as  the EU’s  administrative college. Its responsibilities are largely downstream. They include the monitoring of the  application of European law, the performance of various budgetary, management, executive and management functions, as well as the power to initiate ( but not decide) legislation under the Treaties. In all of this the Commissioners, including the President, like civil servants everywhere, are charged to act independently of external influence.

None of this suggests any stand-alone authority for the Commission or its President on the high political question of new membership, except insofar as this is directly specified in the Treaties. But if we look at the relevant provisions  – Article 49 on accession and  Article 48 on  the alternative route of general Treaty revision – the standing of the Commission is a distinctly modest one. As regards accession, its role is only one of consultation, with the key decision-making reserved to the European Parliament and the Council. As regards general Treaty revision, the Commission is one of a number of institutions that may make proposals, but here the decisive voice lies squarely with the national governments.

If the Commission does not command a central  legal role in these matters, should we not nonetheless be prepared to listen carefully to the views of its President simply as an expert in Union-craft -  as someone who has the knowledge and experience gained from a decade of independently ‘promoting the general interest of the Union’? Absolutely. Of course we should! The snag  here is  that the President has chosen to say nothing worth saying – nothing that would draw upon a considered sense of that general interest,  but instead restricts himself to well-worn  prognostications about what others  might do in pursuit of their particular interests. He trades on the symbolic authority of his position to do nothing more than profound than  recall that the reception of an independent Scotland into the European Union, whether through the  Article 49 route that he envisages, or through the relatively  ‘seamless’ Article 48  route that the nationalists argue for, would  require the approval of all 28 existing member states; and then to advise that this is an arithmetically formidable threshold, especially given the reservations of certain member states about independence movements in their own backyards – a caution that, as Barroso proceeds to reminds us,  has led Spain, concerned with Catalonian and Basque claims, even to refuse to permit a precedent as distant as the recognition of Kosovo as an independent Balkan state.

What is glaringly absent from the debate, both in the  knowing buck-passing of Barroso’s intervention and in the broader silence of the EU’s main movers and players on the Scottish question, is the articulation of any kind of public philosophy that would provide good reasons, rather than simply motivations of base political self interest, why an independent Scotland should or should not be welcomed with open arms. How, precisely, is the EU, still  resolved by common commitment of the member states in the preamble to the Treaty on European Union ‘ to  continue the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity’, to justify the exclusion of an independent Scotland? Why should  a country of 5  million citizens, who  have also been EU citizens for 40 years and who have expressed no desire to leave the European Union, be treated less  generously than the 110 million new EU  citizens – over 20% of the EU’s total population – who have joined from Central and Eastern Europe since 2004? Why should Scottish citizens instead be placed in the same category of Kosovo, or any other  potential candidate from beyond the Union’s distant borders?

The point in posing  these rhetorical questions is not to suggest that the propositions they contain will simply collapse under the weight of their own absurdity. For there  may well be a principled case to  make  against automatic and accelerated membership of an independent Scotland. We find the embryo of such a case, for example, in the analysis of Joseph Weiler, the current President of the European University Institute in Florence. He has argued, with special  reference to the Catalan case,(see http://www.ejiltalk.org/catalonian-independence-and-the-european-union/) that just as national minorities in existing member states who presently enjoy extensive forms  of individual and collective freedom have no  automatic right to secede as a matter of general international law, so, too, the  European Union in its accession policy should not be expected to indulge the independence claims of these unoppressed sub-state nations.To the contrary, the very ethos of integration, reconciliation and continental solidarity that has fed the European project from its post-War beginnings, according to Weiler, should lead  the European Union to take a dim view of any separatist impulse that seems to betray these very founding virtues. From this perspective, therefore, far from having a stronger claim than those external candidates  who have benefited from the post-Cold War Enlargement, those nations already comfortably nested in the EU’s Western European heartland  of multi-level governance should be promised no safe European haven if they insist on the path to independence.

I happen to disagree with both the specific thrust and the wider implications of the  Weiler thesis. To begin with, and most narrowly, even if Weiler’s reasoning is applicable to the situation of Catalonia, where no constitutionally permissible route to referendum and independence is presently countenanced at the level of the wider Spanish state, the Scottish case  is quite different. Here, the Edinburgh Agreement reflects the preparedness of the UK’s flexible constitution to accommodate the prospect of independence. So for the EU to set its face against Scottish independence would be  to dismiss the significance of the member state’s own recognition of the legitimacy of secession.  Secondly, and more broadly, whether we are dealing with the  Scottish or the Catalan case or that of any other national minority, surely more store than Weiler allows should be set by an aspiring nation’s own sense of what is the constitutionally adequate vindication of its desire for collective autonomy. If nothing short of independence is deemed adequate from the perspective of the constituency in question as an affirmation of shared political identity, it is difficult to see why such a subjective  aspiration should be dismissed in favour of a supposedly objective  standard of adequate individual and collective freedom. Thirdly, even if a special case for the EU  as an entity possessing and pursuing a unique historical mission to make internal secession both unnecessary and unacceptable can  be advanced,  it seems unduly dogmatic to use this to justify a rigid policy against  continued membership of new internal states. There are, after all, other and rival views of the deeper purpose of the European Union. The priority given in the Preamble to the TEU to the principle of subsidiarity has already been mentioned, and this surely reflects an alternative  and more independence-friendly perspective. In the face of these competing narratives, should the public policy of the EU on accession not remain more agnostic?

Whether or not my arguments convince, they surely serve to demonstrate  that the EU’s accession policy is and always has been intimately linked to the deep purposes of the world’s first supranational polity, and to ongoing debate, inevitably controversial, over what precisely these deep purposes demand.  It is, therefore, a matter that  requires reasoned public argument and justification of the sort that Weiler attempts rather than a mere weighing of the strategic ‘private’ preferences of national parties. Yet all we get from Barroso is the latter. Not only is this less than we might expect from someone committed to the general interests of the Union, but it also allows the prejudices of national parties to be entered to the calculation without the embarrassment of a first person airing.

In a nutshell:  If any of the key players on the EU stage is opposed to Scottish membership then they should either show the courage of their convictions through a discourse of public justification linked to the interests of the Union as a whole  or, failing that,  they should at least be prepared to declare their intentions to act out of national self-interest. Barroso’ s intervention allows a significant oppositional note to be struck without either of these tests of public candour being met. The danger increases that our independence debate become hijacked to poorly specified and undefended external considerations. That surely is bad news for anyone interested in the referendum as a means to the long-term, widely accepted  resolution of our national conversation.

Neil Walker is Regius Professor of Public Law and the Law of Nature and Nations at the University of Edinburgh.

Suggested citation: N. Walker, ‘Hijacking the Debate’ Scottish Constitutional Futures Forum Blog (18th February 2014) (available at: http://www.scottishconstitutionalfutures.org) or N. Walker, ‘Hijacking the Debate’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (18th February 2014) (available at: http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/).

4 Comments

Filed under Constitutional reform, Devolution, England, Scotland, UK Parliament, Uncategorized

Alan Trench: Scottish independence: does taking a sterling currency union off the table change the game?

alan-trenchThe heavy trailing of an announcement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer (and Danny Alexander and Ed Balls) that the UK Government is not prepared to establish a currency union with Scotland for use of the pound in the event of Scottish independence (see also BBC News coverage here) is a serious blow to aspirations of the SNP for a form of ‘independence lite’.  The logic of this was that it would avoid disrupting many key symbolic and economic ties between an independent Scotland (iScotland) and the remainder of the UK (rUK), so comforting swing voters about the limited scale of the risks of independence.  Those risks are real; think of how attractive Scottish investment trusts and insurance companies look if the complexities and exchange-rate risks of using a different currency are introduced into the equation, for example.  But this shift in the ground also emphasises a number of key issues about the implications of a Yes vote, and what would happen after it.

The first problem – which is particularly the case with the idea of a currency union, but applies to many other important issues – is the asymmetry of interest.  A currency union is central to the way the SNP has formulated its model for independence.  (That view can be contested, of course – whether by the likesof Jim Sillars on, essentially, autonomy grounds, or by Angus Armstrong and Monique Ebell on economic ones, relating to the flexibility of economic policy instruments and the implications of a debt burden.)  But it is of marginal interest or benefit to rUK at best, poses a serious risk at worst, and concluding that the risks of it from an rUK point of view exceed the benefits is a reasonable judgement to come to.  This isn’t the only issue where iScotland has a strong interest in something of limited concern to rUK, either.  In bargaining situations, iScotland has got to have something convincing to offer to rUK – and other than staying in the UK, or the Clyde nuclear bases, it’s hard to see what that might be.

The second problem is what the Yes side do in response to being denied a currency union – the ‘Plan B’ for iScotland’s currency.  There aren’t many currency options; they are using the pound without a currency union (‘dollarisation’), establishing a Scottish currency, or seeking to join the Euro.  (The clearest exposition of those is in a video put together by NIESR, availablehere.)  The first and third of those pose major problems – dollarisation would be unstable and expose iScotland to a range of monetary policy risks over which it had no control, while membership of the Euro normally requires having a national currency first, and then joining the Exchange Rate Mechanism to start the process of tying that currency to the Euro.  That implies a lengthy transition, a currency that sunders Scotland from what at the moment is its closest trading partner, and the question of what the constraints of the Eurozone might be in future.  From that point of view, an independent currency is the least unattractive option by some way – even if it seems riskiest to referendum voters, and proposing it now would indicate a significant reshaping of plans for independence at a late stage in the referendum campaign.

The third problem is how rejection of a currency union affects other options for Scotland.  Talk of repudiating iScotland’s share of UK debt may be attractive to SNP politicians, but is hot-headed nonsense.  It would create the very opposite of the ‘velvet divorce’ which underpins the Yes side’s strategy.  Indeed, it would amount to a unilateral declaration of independence, as well as creating a major ongoing dispute with rUK.  That would affect all plans for independence, not just currency; social union, an open border, co-operation in other matters will all be off the table.  It would create significant obstacles to any negotiations over EU membership, and an insuperable barrier to NATO membership, and make it very expensive for iScotland to borrow from international lenders if it could do so at all.  Reaching a deal on at least the main issues that underpin statehood with rUK would be vital for Scotland to become independent, and the asymmetry of interest means that rUK holds the whip hand in each strand of those negotiations.

The fourth problem is what this means for ‘independence lite’ as a wider project.  The idea that independence would widen the realm of autonomy in some areas (such as fiscal and social policy, and to some degree foreign policy) while retaining existing aspects of the Union such as currency or freedom of movement across the England-Scotland border may be attractive in Scotland.  But the reliance on rUK co-operation and goodwill has never made it a robust and achievable plan for independence, and that is what is starting to unravel for the Yes side.  Moreover, they are hoist to their own petard in two ways.  They have wanted to clarify the basis for independence before September’s poll; while the UK Government has rejected ‘pre-negotiation’ of independence, on currency it is clarifying its position in perhaps the most unhelpful way possible.  The Yes side also has (perhaps reluctantly) embraced the binary Yes/No approach to the referendum (and lost the possible ‘third option’ from the poll).  ‘Independence lite’ was a way of softening the impact of the choice of independence for swing voters and reinstating to a degree the middle ground that was otherwise excluded.  But the rejection of a currency union deprives the Yes side of that comfort as well.  As a result, the choice between independence and remaining part of the UK is becoming increasingly stark.

The challenge that now faces the SNP and the wider Yes campaign is whether to embrace a more radical approach to independence, which may be less attractive to key groups of swing voters (though not other parts of the Yes movement), but produce a more intellectually cogent model of independence, or stick to a middle course predicated on agreements with rUK that look increasingly hard to attain.  Nicola Sturgeon’s diary for the next few weeks includes lectures at UCL (this Thursday) and Cardiff on 24 March, so she will have plenty of opportunity to answer such questions.

None of this alters certain key facts, though.  The Scottish public still support an expanded form of devolution – not independence, but something that confers signficantly greater autonomy than the status quo.  Formulating that option is something that the Unionist parties need to do.  It is in their interests to make devolution work better, after all, as well as enable Scots to have the form of government they desire.  And putting such an option on the table will help people to regard voting No as a positive choice, not just a reaction to the uncertainties surrounding independence.  that also appears to be what voters want, and it is certainly necessary if the referendum is to resolve the wider question of Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom, rather that invite a ’round 2′ of the independence argument at some later date.

UPDATE, 13 February: There are also interesting comments on the currency announcement from Angus Armstrong of NIESR here, Alex Massie for theSpectator Coffee House blog here, and from the Guardian David Torrance in Comment is Free here and Larry Elliott’s Economics Blog here

Further update: The Chancellor’s speech is now available here.  The key points are his linkage of a banking union (necessary to support a shared currency) with a wider fiscal and political union, the question of what benefit rUK would derive from such a union given the asymmetry of the risks, and how stable and durable such a union would be – the possibility of one party choosing to break it.  To quote one passage:

The continuing UK would be almost ten times the size of the Scottish economy. So this would be a totally one-sided deal where UK taxpayers would have to transfer money to an independent Scotland in times of economic stress, with limited prospect of any transfers the other way.

We got Britain out of the eurozone bailouts. Now we’d be getting into an arrangement that was just the same.

The citizens of the rest of the UK could not sign up to such a deal. And frankly, even if we could, I do not think Scotland would want to either.

For the logic of a currency union would mean that Scotland would have to give up sovereignty over spending and tax decisions.

And another:

Because sharing the pound is not in the interests of either the people of Scotland or the rest of the UK.

The people of the rest of the UK wouldn’t accept it and Parliament wouldn’t pass it.

The Treasury analysis – the eleventh paper in the ‘Scotland Analysis’ series – on which Osborne drew in his speech is available here.

Alan Trench is a Professor of Politics at the University of Ulster, also having affiliation to the University of Edinburgh and the Constitution Unit at University College London, and he runs the blog Devolution Matters.  This post is reproduced from that blog with permission.

2 Comments

Filed under Devolution, Scotland, UK government

Nick Barber: After the Vote

Nick1At 650 pages Scotland’s Future  is not a light read.  It stands as the Scottish Government’s manifesto for a yes vote in the independence referendum.  The volume ranges from profoundly important questions relating to currency and Scotland’s membership of the European Union, right down to weather-forecasting and the future of the National Lottery.  Though it is likely many copies of Scotland’s Future will be printed, it is unlikely many will be read from cover to cover.  Its authors probably do not regret its length: by its very heft, the volume seeks to rebut claims that the consequences of independence have not been carefully thought through.  This post considers the immediate constitutional consequences of a yes vote in light of Scotland’s Future.  Its central argument will be that the timescale proposed by the Scottish Government for independence following a referendum is unrealistic, and may work against the interests of an independent Scotland.

Scotland’s Future sees a rapid move to independence after the vote.  The referendum will be held on the 18th of September 2014, and negotiations with the UK and the European Union will start shortly after.  The Scottish Government foresees that these negotiations will be completed by March 2016, 18 months later, and has picked 24th March 2016 as the day on which Scotland will become sovereign.   The first elections in an independent Scotland will be held on 5th May, 2016.  This is the date on which elections for the Scottish Parliament are to be held under the current devolution settlement.

So the key dates are:

18th September 2014: Referendum

 7th May 2015: Likely Date of General Election in United Kingdom (including Scotland)

 Early March 2016: Agreement between UK and Scotland, and between European Union and Scotland

24th March 2016: Independence for Scotland (via Acts of the UK Parliament and Scottish Parliament)

 5th May 2016: Elections to Scottish Parliament

There are two groups of negotiations that Scotland will need to engage in before March 2016: with the UK and with the European Union.  Each of these will be considered in turn.

Negotiations with the UK

The first question to be asked is who, exactly, will negotiate on behalf of the two territories.  The answer for the Scottish side is comparatively easy.  The Scottish White paper specifies that there will be a ‘negotiating team’ appointed, which will be led by the First Minister and include members from a number of political parties in Scotland and ‘public figures’ (p.72).  The Scottish Parliament will scrutinize the process as it progresses – a scrutiny that may complicate matters if, or rather when, difficult concessions need to be made.

Whilst there are still questions to be answered about the composition of the Scottish negotiating team – about the manner of their selection, approval, and, indeed, how this group of previously antagonistic politicians will manage to work as a ‘team’ – these can probably be resolved relatively quickly.  The United Kingdom’s representatives may prove harder to organise.  The principal, but not sole, reason why this may prove tricky is the General Election that will be held in May 2015.

The United Kingdom’s 2015 General Election is likely to impact on negotiations in a number of ways.  First, it makes it unlikely that much serious negotiating will be undertaken in the period between the referendum and the election.  The politicians responsible for the negotiations are likely to be distracted.  The Coalition Government will probably become weaker and more fragmented as the Conservative and Liberal parties seek to present distinct political identities to the public.  It will become steadily more difficult for the UK Government to act in a coherent manner. The looming election will also make meaningful compromise harder: no English politician will want to be seen making concessions to Scots just before an election.  But even more importantly, it will be the 2015 General Election that will determine which party, or parties, will lead the negotiations.  Whilst the negotiators for the UK are likely to be drawn from across the party spectrum, negotiations will be led by a representative of the governing parties: the Prime Minister will probably assume ultimate responsibility for the process.  Furthermore, just as the Scottish Parliament will review and, ultimately, approve the agreement on the Scottish side, the UK Parliament will play a similar role on the UK side.  Under our existing constitution, the final decision about Scottish independence rests with the UK Parliament, which will confer sovereignty on Scotland through a statute.  The agreement reached between the Scottish and UK negotiators must be one each Parliament is willing to endorse.  The political complexion of the 2015 Parliament may, then, be crucial in shaping the course and outcome of negotiations.

The 2015 General Election may raise further difficulties for the course of the negotiation.  Whilst it would make sense for negotiations to be held between Scotland and the remainder of the UK (that is, the UK less Scotland), no such constitutional entity exists.  The UK side of the negotiations will – nominally – include Scotland.  The 2015 UK Parliament will still represent, and sometimes legislate for, the whole of the UK.  The 2015 UK Government will still be responsible for the well-being of the whole of the state.   This will not prove a significant problem if the 2015 election produces a Government with a majority in England.  Then these constitutional conundrums can be ignored: Scottish MPs will have only limited impact in the UK Parliament, and negotiations can continue as if the UK representatives acted for those parts of the Union outside of Scotland.  Far more difficult, though, if after the 2015 election Scottish MPs hold the balance of power in the House of Commons. It could be that, for instance, Labour will gain a majority of seats in the Commons because of the support of Scottish Labour MPs.  If so, the conduct of the UK side of the negotiation may be partly, if indirectly, determined by Scottish MPs, and the product of the negotiations may require the support of Scottish MPs to become law.     And this balance of power would, of course, provide a further incentive for the UK representatives to slow down the pace of negotiations: once Scotland became independent, Scottish MPs would cease to sit in the UK Parliament.  If the governing party required the support of these MPs for its majority, it would lose control of the Commons and could, potentially, either be compelled to stand aside or hold a further election.

Perhaps in response to these worries the SNP has suggested that the UK General Election be postponed for a year.  This is a constitutional possibility, though a tricky one.  Postponing the election would require Parliament to repeal or circumvent the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 and the support of the Commons alone would not be enough as the bill could still be vetoed by the House of Lords.  Parliaments have extended their own lives in the exceptional circumstances of World War I and World War II, but it is doubtful that the Scottish independence referendum – important though it is – presents a crisis of this intensity.  Furthermore, even if the General Election were postponed by a year, there is no guarantee that negotiations would be concluded within this timeframe.

A second reason why the negotiations will probably take longer than the Scottish Government hopes is that the UK side lacks an incentive to speed the process along.  Reading Scotland’s Future it is hard not to be struck by how many issues will need to be negotiated.  Once negotiations start, Scotland will be dealing from a position of comparative weakness.  The two things that Scotland will need in order for independence to be a success in the short and medium term – use of sterling as a currency and membership of the European Union – are both in the gift of the UK.  The UK ought to conduct negotiations in a positive and generous manner – it is in everyone’s long-term interest that Scotland becomes a prosperous and stable country after independence – but it should also ensure that the result protects the interests of those UK citizens outside Scotland.  Scotland’s Future proposes that the Bank of England will become Scotland’s lender of last resort, set the interest rates for both Scotland and the remainder of the UK, and determine monetary policy for the area.  Scotland would then require a share of ownership and control over the Bank.  Though Scotland’s Future suggests otherwise, it is likely that a corollary of this is that a great deal of financial regulation will also be undertaken at the British level: if the Bank of England is to act as lender of last resort, it will also want to have some control over financial regulations that mitigate the risks run by Scottish institutions.  Whilst the Bank of England might be the most important institution an independent Scotland would hope to share with the rest of the UK, it is not the only body that SNP plans to retain.  The Scottish white paper also suggests that around 30% of cross-border bodies will continue to provide services in Scotland (p. 363): once again, Scotland will wish to exercise a share of control over them.     Though it is plainly in the interests of Scotland to retain the pound and make use of the Bank of England and these other bodies, it is harder to see why it would be in the interests of the remainder of the UK to allow this.  Allowing Scotland a share in control of these bodies will reduce the control that citizens of the UK can exert over them: it is an open question why the UK should, or, more importantly, would, accept such a limitation on its sovereignty.  The two key cards held by the Scottish negotiators – allowing nuclear weapons to remain in Scotland and taking a share of the national debt – will need to be judiciously played.

Scotland’s negotiating position will be further harmed by its commitment to a rapid agreement.  The remainder of the UK could happily continue negotiating for years, Scotland’s Future proposes an agreement within 18 months.  Deadlines can be a useful part of a negotiating process, but only if both sides agree to adhere to them.  If – as is probably the case – an agreement takes longer to reach, the Scottish Parliamentary Election of 2016 presents a further challenge.  It is the looming presence of this election that may explain the SNP’s desire for a hasty settlement.  The 2016 election could complicate matters by returning a different government to Scotland – perhaps even a government that no longer supported independence.  This might provide an incentive for the UK negotiators to delay an agreement, hoping, perhaps, for an easier negotiating partner.  On the other hand, this risk may induce the Scottish team to make concessions to secure a quick agreement.

Negotiations with the European Union

In the previous section I noted that Scotland’s membership of the European Union would depend, in part, on the support of the UK.  The UK – like all other members of the EU – would possess the power of veto over Scotland’s application.  It is not in the UK’s long-term interests to deny Scotland membership of the EU, but its support cannot be assumed: Scotland’s membership of the European Union will be an important part of the negotiating process.

The relationship of a newly independent Scotland to the European Union is far from clear.  Whilst there was some early talk that Scotland would automatically become part of the EU on independence, Scotland’s Future accepts that there will need to be an amendment of the treaties for Scotland to join.  The normal processes through which a country applies for membership of the EU are found in Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union.  Scotland’s Future argues that this would be an inappropriate process to impose on Scotland, contending that Scotland, and its people, are already within the Union.  If Article 49 were insisted upon – either by the EU institutions or by any of the Member States – it seems that Scotland would have to gain independence before applying to join.  There would then be a problematic gap between independence and membership of the EU.  Scotland’s Future contends that, instead of Article 49, Article 48 would be the more appropriate mode to amend the Treaties to enable Scotland’s membership.

It is worth looking at Article 48 in a little more detail.  It reads, so far as is relevant:

 Article 48:

 1. The Treaties may be amended in accordance with an ordinary revision procedure. They may also be amended in accordance with simplified revision procedures.

Ordinary revision procedure

 2. The Government of any Member State, the European Parliament or the Commission may submit to the Council proposals for the amendment of the Treaties. These proposals may, inter alia, serve either to increase or to reduce the competences conferred on the Union in the Treaties. These proposals shall be submitted to the European Council by the Council and the national Parliaments shall be notified.

3. If the European Council, after consulting the European Parliament and the Commission, adopts by a simple majority a decision in favour of examining the proposed amendments, the President of the European Council shall convene a Convention composed of representatives of the national Parliaments, of the Heads of State or Government of the Member States, of the European Parliament and of the Commission. The European Central Bank shall also be consulted in the case of institutional changes in the monetary area. The Convention shall examine the proposals for amendments and shall adopt by consensus a recommendation to a conference of representatives of the governments of the Member States as provided for in paragraph 4.

The European Council may decide by a simple majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, not to convene a Convention should this not be justified by the extent of the proposed amendments. In the latter case, the European Council shall define the terms of reference for a conference of representatives of the governments of the Member States.

4. A conference of representatives of the governments of the Member States shall be convened by the President of the Council for the purpose of determining by common accord the amendments to be made to the Treaties.

The amendments shall enter into force after being ratified by all the Member States in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements.

5. If, two years after the signature of a treaty amending the Treaties, four fifths of the Member States have ratified it and one or more Member States have encountered difficulties in proceeding with ratification, the matter shall be referred to the European Council.

 Scotland’s Future claims that this process could be undertaken and completed within 18 months.

A number of points arise out of Article 48.  The most striking point is that, on the face of it, Article 49 would appear the more appropriate mechanism for Scotland’s application.  Article 49 deals with new countries wishing to join the EU, Article 48 relates to treaty amendments that alter the powers of the EU. Even if Article 48 is used, however, it is likely that the process of treaty amendment would still be a lengthy one.

First, the Scottish Government would have to secure the competence to negotiate with the EU, and perhaps other Member States, from Westminster.  Second, the Scottish Government, whilst Scotland was still a part of the United Kingdom, would have to persuade the Council that it was entitled to make use of Article 48, despite Article 48 being confined to governments of Members States.  Then, thirdly, preliminary negotiations would begin with the European institutions, and Member States, before a formal proposal was presented to the Council.  Fourthly, the Council, in its turn, would then send the proposal to the European Council (comprising the Heads of State of the Member States and the President of the European Council) and notify the European Parliament.  Fourthly, if a majority of the European Council were disposed to consider the amendments further, the proposal would be put to a Convention or directly to a Conference consisting of representatives of the governments of Member States.  The former, the Convention, is used if the amendments seem of wide significance, and would require assembling representatives from a broad range of institutions to deliberate and debate the proposals.  The latter, the Conference, can be engaged directly if the reforms are more limited.  It is likely that Scotland’s application – which would affect the composition of the European Parliament, the Commission, and the Court – would require the summoning of a Convention.  In any event, the proposal would then have to be agreed by a Conference of representatives of the governments of Member States.  Fifthly, and finally, the amendments would then have to be ratified by those Member States.   This would probably require a referendum in France and perhaps in some other states too.  Most Member States would require that the amendments be ratified by their legislatures before becoming effective. Then – after the amendments had been ratified by all of the Member States – Scotland would be able to join the European Union.

The last paragraph made for heavy reading.  I do not claim to be a specialist in European Law, but to assume that the Article 48 procedure could be completed within 18 months seems laughably optimistic:  three or four years seems a more plausible timeframe.  Even this makes a number of assumptions.  It assumes that the difficult issues that Scotland must negotiate are quickly agreed.  It assumes that other countries – in particular Spain – do not block or slow Scotland’s application.  And it assumes that the EU is willing to undertake a discrete treaty amendment process to speed Scotland’s membership – and does not seek to include Scotland in the next round of EU expansion.

Whilst the timeframe of Scotland’s Future is unrealistic, it is highly likely that Scotland would be able to join the EU before 2020.  It is in no-one’s interest to exclude Scotland from the Union.  If, as is almost certainly the case, Scotland cannot complete the Article 48 process before the 2016 deadline, it is conceivable that some sort of international agreement could be reached between Scotland and the EU to preserve Scotland’s legal position.  Perhaps Scotland would then be treated a little like Norway: possessing many of the privileges and duties of EU membership, but not able to return MEPs to the European Parliament or appoint Commissioners.

Conclusion

The contention of this post has been that the timescale set by Scotland’s Future is unrealistically tight, and likely to harm Scotland in a number of ways.  There would be benefits to a slower process of negotiation, one which was planned to last four or five years.  Aside from giving Scotland more leeway in negotiations with the UK and more time to allow the treaty amendment process to run its course in Europe, this would also permit Scotland to start the process of formulating a new constitution prior to independence.  Scotland’s Future proposes that a Constitutional Convention be held sometime after the first elections in 2016, following independence.  But if Scotland waits for independence to begin this process it is likely that many of the fundamental aspects of the new Scottish Constitution will have been settled – Scotland’s currency, aspects of its economic policy, and its relationship with the EU are only the most obvious of the questions that will have been resolved by this point.  Other matters that a Convention might want to consider – the role of the Queen and the continuation of the Human Rights Act, for example – will already be part of Scotland’s provisional constitution, and may prove hard to shift.  There is a danger that, like Israel before it, Scotland will find it easier to muddle through with this provisional constitution rather than produce a fresh constitutional document.

Finally, a benefit of running these three processes in parallel is that a further referendum could then be held prior to independence. This second referendum would stand as a ratification of the agreement with the UK (a ratification that, the Constitution Unit argues, is needed to approve the deal), as a vote to join the European Union, and, finally, as an approval of Scotland’s new constitution.  Each of these three issues presents a strong argument for a second vote.

Nick Barber is University Lecturer in Constitutional Law at Oxford University, and a Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford. 

Suggested citation: N. W. Barber, ‘After the  Vote’  U.K. Const. L. Blog (14th January 2014) (available at  http://ukconstitutionallaw.org).

11 Comments

Filed under Constitutional reform, Devolution, European Union, Scotland, UK government

Alan Trench: Implementing Silk in Wales: An Update.

alan-trenchThe UK Government has now published its proposals for the implementation ofthe Silk Commission’s Part 1 report, following its announcement at the beginning of November (and so managed to get its response in just before the anniversary of the publication of the Commission’s report).  The Wales Office’s news release is here and the paper itself, Empowerment and responsibility: devolving financial powers to Wales, is here. (Note for government documentation trainspotters: this isn’t a Command paper to be formally laid before Parliament, and certainly not a white paper or even green paper.  This contrasts with bothLabour and Coalition responses to Calman, and again suggests either that the UK is not taking Wales as seriously as it did Scotland, or that this is a response framed in some haste.)

Unsurprisingly, the paper largely confirms the key elements of the deal announced by the UK Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, previously discussed HERE: devolution of two small land taxes, devolution of 10 points of income tax, but only after a referendum.  It confirms that, as for Scotland, aggregates levy may be devolved, but only once outstanding EU state aids issues are resolved, and that air passenger duty will not be.

The paper does clarify some important issues.  First, the ‘lockstep’ will be maintained; the same Welsh rate of income tax must be maintained in relation to each tax UK tax rate (standard, higher, 45 per cent).  The idea that the Welsh Government should have the power to set different rates for each band – carefully advanced by both the Holtham and Silk Commissions – is dropped.  This move is justified on the ground that devolution of the power to set different rates ‘could distort the redistributive structure (or progressivity) of the income tax system and could potentially be detrimental to the UK as a whole’ (para 2.12).   This aspect of the Calman proposals has been advanced despite its rejection by both Welsh commissions that considered the point.

Second, the paper confirms that business rates should be fully devolved.  This was part of the Silk recommendations, and has been separately endorsed by the Welsh Government following the Morgan review.  It was, however, left out of the Cameron/Clegg announcement, perhaps by oversight. If so, that has now been remedied.

Third, the Welsh Government’s borrowing powers will be introduced immediately, but will also be limited to the devolved tax base.  This implies some limited borrowing capacity when SDLT and landfill tax are devolved, but with significant powers only becoming available if income tax is devolved.  But there is also what appears to be a separate additional commitment to provide some early access to capital borrowing to fund the M4 improvement works.

At the same time, the paper is silent on some other issues.  It does not say who should be able to call the referendum on the new income tax power, only that ‘the model in the Government of Wales Act 2006 worked well in terms of the referendum on legislative powers’.  That would imply that the power should be vested in the National Assembly, but exercisable only a) on the proposal of the Welsh Government and b) by a two-thirds majority.

The paper also has little to say on the question of how the cut in the block grant to allow for the devolved relate of income tax might be made – it just talks of a ‘corresponding’ reduction in the block grant.  This vexed issue – again, the subject of detailed consideration in the Holtham Commission report and adopted for Scotland as part of the deal to secure passage of the Scotland Act 2012 – is a striking omission.  Moreover, the issue of how the cut in the block grant will interact with that (which I discussed in the summer HERE) is glossed over; all the paper does is refer to the October 2012 agreement as ‘robust arrangements …. [which] provide a firm basis for the devolution of income tax’ (para. 2.16).

The paper also offers relatively little on the Silk recommendations regarding information about the financial arrangements for devolution, which remain opaque.  (For example, HM Treasury has apparently updated the population figures used to calculate consequential payments under the Barnett formula following the 2013 Spending Round, but has still not published the new ones.)  It also offers little on institutional arrangements for the new powers, other than to note that ‘Additional costs incurred in implementing and administering these new devolved powers will be the responsibility of the Welsh Government, as set out in the Statement of Funding Policy’ (para. R29, p.18).  It also fails to offer a version of the ‘no detriment’ provision for Scotland, to ensure there was no harm on devolved funding arising from changes in UK tax policy that had knock-on effects on devolved tax revenues.

This raises three sets of concerns about the UK proposals.  First, what is proposed for Wales is largely the Calman package as enacted for Scotland. GivenDanny Alexander’s comments before the Silk Commission was even established, why did anyone need to bother with the whole Silk Commission process, if the UK Government’s intention was simply to apply the Calman model from the outset and not take into account the changes to that which the Silk Commission recommended?  If the main factors influencing UK Government policy were inter-departmental and inter-party bargaining at Westminster, members of the Commission might have reason to wonder why they had to spend so much time and effort to help the UK Government end up with what starts to look rather like a pre-ordained outcome.

Second, where the UK Government proposes changes from the Scotland Act 2012 implementation of the Calman model, they are subtractions from that rather than additions or variations to fit Welsh circumstances.  It is unclear why Calman should be applied when it comes to matters like the income tax lockstep but not the ‘no detriment’ principle or the provisions about introducing new taxes.  If Calman is the model, should it not be applied consistently save when there is a good reason to do otherwise?

Third, the UK Government proposes to pass on the additional costs of the new arrangements to the Welsh Government’s resources.  This does follow a Scottish precedent, and shares a problem of principle that arose with Scotland: why should the UK Government’s policy to promote financial accountability of the Welsh Government which is not something sought by the Welsh Government be paid for by that government?  If this policy is intended to implement a UK Government not Welsh Government policy objective, why should the UK Government not bear the costs?  In a Scottish context, there was at least a dubious if implicit rationale for doing so – Scotland is generously funded through the Barnett formula arrangements and has financial room for manoeuvre.  That is not the case for Wales, and no good reason has been given for the UK Government’s approach.  Indeed, given the Welsh Government’s scepticism about financial accountability and concern about the absence of ‘fair funding’, would it not be in the UK Government’s interest to offer it some sort of incentive to sign up, not increase the burden of doing so.  As it stands, the UK proposals simply invite the Welsh parties to ask why Welsh services should be further under-funded to pay for such a UK Government policy.

Alan Trench is Professor of Politics at the University of Ulster. 

This post originally appeared on the Devolution Matters blog, and is reposted with thanks.

1 Comment

Filed under Devolution

Christopher McCrudden: Equality and the Good Friday Agreement: Fifteen Years On

 mccrudden2-high-res-1_1The Northern Ireland peace agreement was born on the 10th April 1998, Good Friday, in Belfast and will thus celebrate its 15th birthday next week. One of the central elements of the Agreement was to achieve equality between the two main communities in Northern Ireland. It was an ambitious attempt to achieve this aim through a significant restructuring of the Northern Ireland constitution. This aspect of the Agreement has implications, therefore, for the role of constitutions in achieving equality more broadly. The fifteenth anniversary provides a suitable occasion to assess the outcomes achieved, and to look to the future.

The Northern Ireland constitutional model incorporated in the Belfast-Good Friday Agreement is neither unique, nor particularly unusual in a global context.  It is a classic democratic consociation, as political scientists term it. Four key elements of democratic consociation are commonly identified.

These are, first, the sharing of executive and, often, legislative and security powers among representatives of all the major communities, especially those with histories of prior antagonism. Examples of specific arrangements include collective presidencies and co-premierships; examples also include concurrent or qualified majority rules. Plainly such power-sharing aims to achieve greater inclusivity and jointness in decision-making than ‘winner-takes-all democracy’.

The second key feature is community autonomy. Each constituent group has significant internal self-government in at least one public function (for example, in establishing and controlling its own schools). Equality across the communities applies in these respects. Self-government accompanies shared government.

The third feature is the widespread use of the proportionality principle, understood to encompass proportional representation in shared institutions, and the allocation of important resources and public offices. For example, posts in the civil service, security forces, and judiciary, are shared out by reference to the proportions the groups have in the population as a whole, or in the labour market. Proportionality may also apply to the allocation of public expenditures, e.g., each group may receive the same per capita funding for its primary schools.

Lastly, because power-sharing, proportionality, and autonomy may not provide sufficient assurance to particular groups that their interests will not be over-ridden, explicit veto rights may be granted to each of the communities on vital issues, with variations in how these veto rights are allocated and legally entrenched.

How does all this relate to the equality agenda? Apart from the attempt to achieve equality at the level of the legislature and the executive, there are three additional legislative features of the equality agenda in Northern Ireland that relate to the Agreement: first, the fair employment legislation which began in 1976, was fundamentally restructured in 1989, and more minimally reformed as a result of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement; second, section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 which established a public sector equality duty on public bodies resulted directly from the Agreement itself; and third, the (now repealed) quota provisions regarding the recruitment to the Northern Ireland Police Service is derived from the Patten Commission established as a result of the Agreement. There are five points I want to make.

First, the equality agenda comprising these elements can best be understood in the context of the Northern Ireland consociational model. It is, of course, separable from it – much of the equality agenda borrows its techniques from other countries (such as the United States) where consociations are not in operation. But placing it within the consociational model emphasizes the extent to which equality in Northern Ireland is primarily about securing the third of the three elements I described earlier – the proportionality principle. It is this that marks the equality agenda in Northern Ireland out from that in the rest of the United Kingdom or, indeed, in the Republic of Ireland.

Second, it is also useful to see the equality agenda in the context of the consociational model for another critical reason: the effective enforcement of fair employment after 1990, and the debate over the public sector equality duty in the early 1990s was a critical element in the “confidence building” measures that resulted in nationalist (and particularly republican) politicians agreeing to the other elements of the consociational package, in particular the first of these, the sharing of legislative, executive and security powers with the other parties. The orthodox histories of the run up to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement largely, I think, underestimate the extent to which there was a parallel “peace process” that supported the main process, but which concentrated less on security and power-sharing issues and more on economic, social and human rights issues.  In practice, the two went hand in hand.

The relative success in getting these equality measures accepted and implemented provided a degree of reassurance that the Northern Ireland state was capable of reform and transformation, and laid some of the political ground work for the Agreement. The Americans, and largely because of them the Irish Government, understood this; I was never convinced that the British Government did (or, perhaps, does) fully comprehend the importance of this.

The third reason for emphasizing the consociational context of the equality agenda is that the other elements of the consociational model act as a limit on a liberal individualistic equality agenda. This can be seen in two respects.  First, the consociational model depends on the recognition and (to a degree) the institutionalization, of the two major communities as the key political actors. For some, though not for me, this is anathema because it appears to emphasize existing divisions rather than transcending them; and this came to a head in particular in the debate over the Patten police quota arrangements.

A second limit on the equality agenda arising from consociation relates to schools. I said that one of the features of a consociation is a degree of autonomy in certain spheres.  In Northern Ireland, the best example of an autonomy arrangement relates to primary and secondary education, which is a closely guarded sphere of Catholic influence.  Fair employment legislation has carved out teaching in schools as an exception.  This can really only be understood when seen in the consociational context.

I will end by making two further points.  The first is that, to a considerable extent, the strategy worked, not just in the sense that it helped build confidence (which it did), but in its own terms. In particular, research supported by the Nuffield Foundation demonstrates pretty definitively that the effective enforcement of the fair employment legislation in the 1990s led to a significant shift in the labour market with significantly reduced inequality between Catholics and Protestants, at the same time as achieving significant desegregation. There is a more complex story to tell, but suffice to say it is a very good news story, and one that Northern Ireland should be proud of. It is the success of this legislation that has significantly taken the poison out of the discrimination issue (a poison that those of us who worked in the area remember only too well). The same applies to the Patten quota, which has succeeded in restructuring the composition of the police service from one that was overwhelmingly Protestant to one that is now proportional, and has contributed to the increased acceptance of the police in the nationalist community.

Finally, what of the future? Although by no means unique globally, consociational arrangements are unusual in the British and Commonwealth world, and are therefore continually under pressure; there is a sense among some opinion formers in Britain that the Westminster model is in some way the “norm” and that, in time, the aim should be to return Northern Ireland to “normality”.  In the equality context, this means constant indirect pressure to reduce the specifically Northern Ireland features of the approaches taken to equality, such as compulsory monitoring in fair employment, a significant regulatory presence in the labour market in the shape of the Equality Commission, and the process requirements of the public sector equality duty concerning civil society participation in decision-making, and impact assessment. Both the European Union and the domestic courts have recognized the importance of preserving the Northern Ireland equality model, and have resisted attempts to force change.[1]

The greater danger comes, I think from, a sense among some opinion formers in London (and even some in Belfast) that the equality job has been done, equality has been achieved, and we can therefore simply dismantle the panoply of equality requirements, particularly in a time of financial cutbacks. That view, I suggest, should be strongly resisted. The importance of the equality agenda in enabling the Belfast-Good Friday Agreement to be concluded in the first place, and ensuring that a stable government could eventually be established and maintained, should be recognized and lessons learned. It would be a mistake, I think, of incredible stupidity with incalculable costs if inequality between the two communities were to become a significant problem again in Northern Ireland.

Christopher McCrudden FBA is Professor of Equality and Human Rights Law, Queen’s University Belfast, and Leverhulme Major Research Fellow (2011-2014). It is an edited version of a talk presented on the 27th March 2013 at the British Academy seminar “The Good Friday Agreement: 15 Years On”.

Suggested citation: C. McCrudden, ‘Equality and the Good Friday Agreement: Fifteen Years On’ UK Const. L. Blog (29th March 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)
.
[1] Unlike in Bosnia Herzegovina, where there have been systematic external attempts to dismantle the consociational arrangements, explored further in Christopher McCrudden and Brendan O’Leary, Courts and Consociations: Human Rights versus Power-Sharing (OUP, 2013).

2 Comments

Filed under Devolution, Northern Ireland

Mark Elliott: Devolution, the West Lothian Question, and the nature of constitutional reform in the United Kingdom

mark1Earlier this week, the McKay Commission published its Report on the Consequences of Devolution for the House of Commons. The Commission’s terms of reference required it to determine “how the House of Commons might deal with legislation which affects only part of the United Kingdom, following the devolution of certain legislative powers to the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the National Assembly for Wales”. In other words, the Commission was established to do that which Lord Irvine of Lairg (in)famously counselled against: viz to tackle the West Lothian Question. (Irvine reportedly said that the best thing to do about that question was to “stop asking it”.) There are various ways in which the question can be framed. The Commission, for its part, took the central issue to be the possibility that “MPs from outside England could help determine laws that apply in England, while MPs from England would have no reciprocal influence on laws outside England in policy fields for which the devolved institutions would now be responsible”.

The notion of reciprocity—or, more accurately, the lack of reciprocity that is a function of the UK’s asymmetric model of devolution—has always been at the heart of the West Lothian Question. Viewed more broadly, the fact that the West Lothian Question has arisen and remained unanswered for so long is reflective of a typically British approach to constitutional reform—one that treats the constitution as a work-in-progress, and which accepts disjointedness and inelegance as the price of pragmatism and speed. Within that tradition of constitutional reform, loose ends are an inevitable result of an underlying reluctance to confront big-picture questions. The McKay Commission’s approach to the West Lothian Question is of a piece with this dominant approach to constitutionalism in the UK, in that it proposes a practical solution that leaves the some fundamental questions unanswered.

The Commission’s guiding principle—and where that principle did not lead it

The Commission is clear that doing nothing should not be regarded as a viable option. In doing so, they rightly reject the view (advanced by Vernon Bogdanor in evidence to the Commission) that because England has a de facto predominance in the UK, it has “no need to beat the drum or blow the bugle”. Bogdanor argues that if England seeks to exploit its inherent dominance, it may strain the Union to “breaking point”. But this overlooks the potentially fissiparous effect of leaving the West Lothian Question hanging and thereby stoking a sense of disempowerment. This is a sphere in which perception matters: and the risk is that England may perceive itself to be (as Richard Rawlings, “Concordats of the Constitution” (2000) 116 LQR 257, put it) “the spectre at the feast”.

Instead, the Commission concludes that: “Decisions at the United Kingdom level having a separate and distinct effect for a component part of the United Kingdom should normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of the elected representatives for that part of the United Kingdom.” The Commission recommends that this principle be adopted by means of a resolution of the House of Commons. The question then became how this guiding principle should be given practical effect.

One obvious issue is that the “separate and distinct effect” formulation is undeniably vague. As Brigid Hadfield, “Devolution, Westminster and the English Question” [2005] PL 286, put it, “What … is an English law? If it cannot be defined with sufficient precision, then non-English MPs cannot fairly be precluded from voting on it.” By advocating the vaguer “separate and distinct effect” formulation, the Commission implicitly acknowledges that the matter is a complex one in relation to which judgement would have to exercised, rather than something that can be reduced to a clear-cut formula. But acknowledging complexity is not the same thing as resolving it, and the application of the “separate and distinct” criterion would doubtless excite controversy. Such definitional difficulties are not good reasons for shelving attempts to resolve the West Lothian Question (on the ground that it is all too difficult), but there is clearly further work to be done here.

Leaving to one side the inevitable questions of categorisation, how does the Commission propose that its guiding principle should be implemented? It rejects the creation of a separate English legislature, arguing that it might have a destabilising effect and would likely require wholesale constitutional reform. What, though, of the more modest proposal that only MPs representing English constituencies (or MPs representing English and Welsh constituencies) should be allowed to vote on laws likely to have a “separate and distinct effect” upon England (or upon England and Wales)?

The Commission rejects this option too. Its reasons for doing so are largely pragmatic. In particular, it fears that different “classes” of MPs would be created, and that the possibility of “deadlock” would arise: a Government might enjoy a majority in Parliament as a whole whilst lacking an outright majority of English MPs. Such a scenario is alien to the standard modus operandi of the UK system, in which (typically) a single party has an overall majority such that the Executive is able to drive its business through Parliament with (at least a degree of) impunity. In any event, the flip-side of the “deadlock” problem is arguably more profound. It concerns the dual functions ascribed to the post-devolution UK Parliament, whereby it is required to sustain not only the UK Government but also the de facto English Government. This is the sort of big-picture issue that the McKay Commission fails squarely to confront—a point that I develop below.

The Commission’s key proposals

Having rejected an English Parliament and “English votes for English laws” (along with various other options), the Commission concludes that its guiding principle should be implemented (first) by giving a voice to English (or English and Welsh) MPs in relation to relevant Bills, and (second) by making it politically difficult—but not impossible, either as a matter of law or parliamentary procedure—to enact relevant Bills in the absence of majority support on the part of relevant MPs.

As to the first point, the Report says that “views from England
(or England-and-Wales) should be known before a final decision is made about something with a separate and distinct effect”. The Commission identifies a range of ways in which this might be achieved. One possibility is modelled on “legislative consent motions” whereby, under the Sewel convention, the consent of a devolved legislature may be sought to the enactment of UK legislation encroaching upon devolved competence. The McKay Commission envisages that an analogous procedure might be used in relation to UK legislation liable to have a “separate and distinct” effect upon England (or England and Wales), the suggestion being that a Grand Committee consisting of all MPs representing relevant constituencies would render an opinion (by means of a resolution) as to whether the (relevant parts of the) Bill should be proceeded with. Other options identified by the Commission include debating a motion “expressing
 an opinion on that part of a bill relating separately and distinctly to England (or England-and-Wales)”, and the committal of relevant Bills to specially-constituted Public Bill Committees in which the party balance would reflect that which obtained in England (or England and Wales) rather than in the whole House. The Report does not express a firm conclusion as to which of these options should be taken forward; it identifies further questions that would need to be resolved, and suggests that the Government should put its preferred options to the House of Commons, and that a Select Committee should subsequently advise the House on points of detail.

So much for a distinctive English (or English and Welsh) “voice”. What if that voice (by a majority) opposes a Bill or relevant parts of it? Here, the Commission is very clear that MPs representing English (or English and Welsh) constituencies should not have a power of veto. It therefore rejects a “double-lock” procedure, under which it would be necessary, where relevant, to secure the approval not only of a majority of all MPs but also the approval of a majority of English (or English and Welsh) MPs. This reflects the Commission’s view that once the views of MPs representing particularly affected parts of the country have been heard and considered, “the UK majority should prevail, not least in order to retain the UK Government’s accountability at election time for decision-making during its time in office”.

However, at the same time as rejecting a “double-lock”, the Commission proposes a “double-count” procedure. This would involve making public not just the names of MPs who voted for and against the Bill, but also the constituencies they represent—with a view to determining whether relevant Bills (or provisions) attracted the support of a majority of MPs representing relevant constituencies. Although no legal or procedural consequences would ensue if a majority of the latter type were not secured, the Commission envisages that “if a government was seen to have failed to attract the support of a majority of MPs from England (or England-and-Wales) for business affecting those interests, it would be likely to sustain severe political damage”. The intention, therefore, is to disincentivise the use of MPs from unaffected (or less affected) parts of the country to push through legislation against the wishes of the majority of MPs representing particularly affected parts of the UK, whilst stopping short of preventing such a practice.

In preferring double-count over double-lock, the Commission cites its own guiding principle—that decisions “should normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of the elected representatives for that part of the United Kingdom” (emphasis added). The Commission’s defence of this position rests upon the principle of reciprocity. Devolved legislatures’ wishes with respect to incursions by Westminster into areas of devolved competence are normally respected (via the use of legislative consent motions under the Sewel convention), but are not necessarily respected (because Westminster could, at least in theory, override their wishes by asserting its legislative supremacy, which is undiminished by devolution).

By the same token, while English (or English and Welsh) MPs should be able to object to UK legislation likely to have “separate and distinct” effects upon England (or England and Wales), they should not thereby be able to veto such Bills. Instead, the consequences of oibjecting—like the consequences of a devolved legislature refusing to endorse a legislative consent motion—should play out on the political stage. The essence of the proposal, therefore, is to place (for these purposes) the group of MPs representing English (or English and Welsh) constituencies in a position vis-à-vis the (full) Westminster Parliament that is analogous to the position that devolved legislatures occupy in relation to Westminster. And, as the Commission notes, the analogy would likely be extended by the emergence of a constitutional convention corresponding to the Sewel convention. (It is worth noting in passing that the likely prescriptiveness of such a convention would mean that a double-lock requirement might well obtain in effect if not in form, just as the UK Parliament’s capacity unilaterally to interfere in devolved affairs is rendered essentially notional by the Sewel convention.)  

The bigger picture

The analogy outlined above is persuasive as far as it goes—but, arguably, it does not go far enough because it takes insufficient account of two sets of distinctions and the relationship between them. First, there is the distinction between the twin roles performed by all Westminster-style legislatures: viz legislating, on the one hand, and determining the composition of and sustaining the Executive, on the other. Second, there is the distinction between the way in which the Westminster Parliament, on the one hand, and the devolved legislatures, on the other, discharge those roles. The McKay Commission’s focus is upon the way in which the Westminster Parliament discharges its first—i.e. legislative—function. But there is insufficient consideration of the second function—i.e. determining the composition of and sustaining the Executive.

The analogy between devolved legislatures and Westminster breaks down because, unlike the former, the latter has to determine the composition of and sustain a Janus-like Executive: one that functions both as the Government of the United Kingdom and as the Government of England. Within this distinction is concealed the West Lothian Question writ large. As conventionally framed, the West Lothian Question is concerned with micro-level (albeit important) questions concerning Parliament’s legislative function and its exercise in relation to individual Bills. But a macro-level question also arises. Because the Westminster Parliament must sustain not only the UK Executive but also the de facto English Executive, no amount of finessing of the procedure whereby legislation is enacted can get around the possibility that elections to the UK Parliament may yield an Executive that does not accurately reflect the wishes of voters in England (as refracted through Parliament as an electoral college). Indeed, the 2010 election is a case in point, in that the Conservative Party won an overall majority of English but not UK constituencies.

It is in this sense that the McKay Commission might be said to have failed fully to grasp the nettle. The underlying issue that is never fully grappled with is that the post-devolution Westminster Parliament is required to perform a set of functions that may be in tension with one another. And this raises questions about our constitutional architecture more profound than those addressed by the Commission. It does not, of course, follow that that particular nettle should be grasped. As noted at the outset of this post, a certain degree of messiness is an unavoidable byproduct of the approach that characterises constitutional reform in the UK—and history teaches that the results of that approach do not necessarily yield a constitution lacking workability or public acceptance.

Viewed thus, the McKay Commission’s proposed solution to the West Lothian Question is of a piece with the type of constitutionalism that generated the question in the first place. It provides a partial, practical workaround to a problem created by a disjointed set of constitutional changes. Whether all of this showcases the merits of the UK’s highly pragmatic approach to constitutional reform or reflects a failure to confront difficult and fundamental questions is a matter of perspective. In any event, the McKay Commission’s Report shows that Lord Irvine was wrong; the West Lothian Question needed to be asked, and we could do a lot worse than answer it by implementing the Commission’s proposals. It is likely, however, that the concern underpinning Irvine’s reluctance to engage with the question derived from his recognition that once one begins to pick away at the loose edges of the constitution, it may quickly begin to unravel. It follows, then, that while asking the West Lothian Question is not unwise, thinking about it too hard might well be discomforting.

Mark Elliott is Reader in Public Law at the Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge. 

Suggested citation: M. Elliott, ‘Devolution, the West Lothian Question, and the nature of constitutional reform in the United Kingdom’  UK Const. L. Blog (26th March 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)

6 Comments

Filed under Devolution, England, Scotland, UK Parliament

Aileen McHarg: The Leveson Report, the Royal Charter and the Scottish Parliament: A Reply to Jamieson

aileenIain Jamieson’s earlier post argues that the ability of the Scottish Parliament to implement its own model of press regulation in response to the Leveson Report has effectively been ousted by the UK government’s proposal to establish a UK-wide system of press regulation by Royal Charter.  I would take issue with two aspects of his analysis.

First, Jamieson claims that, since the provisions of the proposed Royal Charter will be entrenched by clause 92 of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which applies to Scotland, the Scottish Parliament cannot legislate to amend the Royal Charter or provide that it should not apply to Scotland.  Clause 92 provides that the Charter cannot be amended except in accordance with the procedure laid out in the Charter itself (two thirds majority of each House).  As Jacob Rowbottom has argued on this blog, the degree of entrenchment actually provided by this device is limited because clause 92 can itself be repealed or amended by subsequent UK legislation with no special majority.

To argue that the Scottish Parliament will nevertheless bound be by clause 92 therefore requires the further claim that, because clause 92 (however indirectly) ‘occupies the field’ in relation to press regulation, the Scotland Act 1998 will be impliedly repealed insofar as it devolves power to legislate on that issue to the Scottish Parliament.  There are at least three ways of responding to this implied repeal argument, all of which lead to the conclusion that the Scottish Parliament will not in fact be bound by clause 92.

The first, and most speculative, response would be to rely on Laws LJ’s obiter dictum in Thoburn to the effect that, since the Scotland Act is a constitutional statute, it cannot be impliedly repealed.  This would mean that the only way in which the Scottish Parliament’s legislative competence can be reduced would be through express amendment via primary legislation or a section 30 order, either of which would require (by convention, in the former case, and by statute, in the latter) the consent of the Scottish Parliament.

It is, however, unnecessary to adopt such a heterodox approach.  A second, more conventional, approach would be to accept that the Scotland Act may be impliedly repealed, but to argue, as Barber and Young have done (‘The Rise of Prospective Henry VIII Clauses and Their Implications for Sovereignty’ [2003] PL 112, pp 112-6), that a statute can only be impliedly repealed by a subsequent statute on the same subject matter, not merely by a later conflicting statutory norm.  Since the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill does not deal with the same subject matter as the Scotland Act (the division between reserved and devolved legislative competences), it cannot impliedly repeal the transfer of power to the Scottish Parliament effected by the Scotland Act even if a norm contained within it or flowing from it for the time being ‘occupies the field’ of a particular devolved competence.  It would, on this analysis, still be open to the Scottish Parliament to assert its legislative competence in relation to press regulation and repeal (expressly or impliedly) the provisions contained in clause 92.

A third, even more conventional approach, would lead to the same conclusion.  This would be to accept that a statutory provision can be impliedly repealed by a later inconsistent statutory norm, even if the subject matter of the two statutes is not identical.  This view, however, requires a more nuanced approach to when such a conflict arises.  In relation to the Scotland Act 1998, for instance, it may be argued that the transfer of legislative competence in devolved areas to the Scottish Parliament is not inconsistent with (and therefore not impliedly repealed by) later UK legislation on a devolved matter because the Scotland Act itself, in s.28(7) expressly envisages that such a situation may occur.  This approach suggests that the Scotland Act, properly understood, involves a sharing of legislative power between the UK and Scottish Parliaments, and that the latest norm on a particular devolved matter will prevail irrespective of the Parliament from which it emanates.  This analysis would appear to be the one which best fits the post-devolution legislative practice, where the Scottish Parliament has regularly consented to allow the UK Parliament to legislate on its behalf, but has on some occasions subsequently amended such legislation.

The second point which arises out of Jamieson’s blog concerns whether the UK government is legally or constitutionally entitled to impose a system of press regulation on Scotland via the royal prerogative.  The constitutional position, as set out in written answer by Tony Blair on 30 June 1999,  is that where the exercise of prerogative powers relates to a matter within devolved competence, it is for the First Minister rather than Ministers of the Crown to advise the Queen.  The situation is slightly different in relation to business of the Privy Council, such as grant or amendment of a Royal Charter, because it is the Privy Council as a whole rather than a particular minister which advises the Queen.  Nevertheless, the written answer states that:

the advice in relation to a particular matter which the Privy Council offers to Her Majesty is in many instances based, either by virtue of statutory provision but more often by convention, on advice or information provided to the Privy Council by one or more particular Ministers of the Crown as the Privy Counsellor with the principal interest in that matter.’

It goes on to state that, in areas of devolved competence, the Privy Counsellor with the principal interest would be the First Minister (who is a member of the Privy Council).

It is not clear from these provisions whether the Privy Council as a whole is entitled to depart from the advice of the principal minister.  Where there is a conflict of views between members of the same administration it may perhaps be argued that the majority view should prevail.  However, in the case of a conflict between the view of the First Minister and other Privy Counsellors representing the UK government, there is a strong case (for the reasons that Jamieson outlines) for saying that it should not.

Given that the question of who should advise the monarch on the exercise of the royal prerogative is a matter of convention rather than law, it may be difficult to argue that the UK government would be acting illegally if the Privy Council were to recommend the adoption of a system of press regulation applying throughout the UK in the face of Scottish opposition.  As a matter of constitutional morality, though, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that to treat the design of a new UK-wide system of press regulation as a matter for negotiation purely between the main parties in the UK Parliament is constitutionally improper.

Contrary to Jamieson, therefore, I would argue that just because the UK government has chosen a regulatory vehicle which manages to avoid the application of the Sewel Convention, it does not thereby follow that the Scottish Parliament is compelled to accept it or deprived of its competence to legislate for a different system of press regulation in Scotland.

(I am grateful to Chris Himsworth for his very helpful comments on this note and particularly for alerting me to the Blair written answer.)

Aileen McHarg is Professor of Public Law at the  University of Strathclyde.

 Suggested citation: A. McHarg, ‘The Leveson Report, the Royal Charter and the Scottish Parliament: A Reply to Jamieson’ UK Const. L. Blog (21st March 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)

 

6 Comments

Filed under Devolution, Scotland

Stephen Tierney: After the referendum – the Scottish Government’s proposal for a written Constitution

stierneyThe debate over Scottish independence has turned recently to discussion of the post-referendum landscape. On 5 February the Scottish Government published Scotland’s Future: from the Referendum to Independence and a Written Constitution  which suggests that a two stage process would follow upon a majority Yes vote. From the date of the referendum until March 2016 a period of constitutional negotiations with the UK Government is proposed, culminating in the formal grant of independence by Westminster. Following the Scottish parliamentary elections in May 2016 a constitution-framing process, internal to Scotland only, would then take place. Although the prospect of a Yes vote is, to say the least, far from certain with support failing to rise above 35% in most polls, each of these proposed stages is interesting, not least for the questions left unanswered in the Scotland’s Future paper.

The first issue is timing. Scotland’s Future (1.6) states: ‘The right time for a written constitution to be drafted is… after independence, not before. At that point the people of Scotland, whatever their views in the referendum, will be able to engage fully in the process of planning for our country’s future.’ It is, therefore, not the intention of the Scottish Government to engage in setting out a draft constitution in advance of the referendum. But it still seems inevitable that speculation about the content of a future constitution of an independent Scotland will inevitably be a focal-point, albeit possibly not a major one, of the referendum campaign, particularly after the Scottish Government publishes its promised White Paper towards the end of this year on the content of independence which will inevitably contain commitments which would in due course require constitutional protection.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Scotland’s Future is somewhat light on the possible content of a new constitution, but there are some hints about the Government’s preferences. It is notable in itself that the Government proposes a written constitution (Scotland’s Future 1.5). It also suggests that the Sovereign will continue as head of state (2.14); that there will be a Supreme Court of Scotland, and that this court will have the power to strike down unconstitutional legislation (the constitution will contain ‘citizens rights that cannot be taken away by a decision of Parliament’ – 1.5). This raises a number of questions about court structure under the new regime. How would a new Supreme Court be established and how would it be populated? Would it be a free-standing court with personnel separate from the existing superior courts in Scotland, and if so could this be justified given the limited number of constitutional issues that come from Scotland to the UK Supreme Court at the moment? Or would judges from the Court of Session sit on this on an ad hoc basis? 

There is also a reference to Scotland’s membership of the European Union (and of course there is a separate debate about how that membership will be secured) being subject to constitutional provision (2.3). Little is said about institutional arrangements. One question that will inevitably arise in the referendum campaign is whether there would be any proposals to make the Scottish Parliament bicameral or at least to institute some model of review body to assess and scrutinise draft legislation.

Scotland’s Future spends longer setting out a commitment to collectivist values in the form of social rights which it suggests will also enjoy constitutional protection. There is a proposal to enshrine within the constitution an entitlement to public services and ‘to a standard of living that, as a minimum, secures dignity and self-respect’ (1.10) and possibly also ‘constitutional rights in relation to issues such as welfare, pensions, health care and education’ (1.10). There is also a radical suggestion that principles on climate change, the environment and the sustainable use of Scotland’s natural resources should be constitutionally protected and that there might be a constitutional ban on nuclear weapons being based in Scotland. Each of these proposals of course raises questions about what type of enforcement would accompany such provisions; in particular would the courts be vested with the duty to enforce social and environmental rights etc., the constitutional appropriateness of such a duty the competence of judges to execute it. The final substantive proposal in Scotland’s Future is for an examination of the war power and a constitutional guarantee that this power would be shared by the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament. Separately, the Government has also suggested constitutional provisions on Scotland’s system of local government.

The paper also turns to process and it is here that the two stage approach emerges. The first stage after the referendum would be the interim period within which Scotland would become independent. The intention is that during this period of some 15-16 months up to March 2016, agreements will be reached between the Scottish and UK Governments on this transition, establishing the timetable towards ‘independence day’ in March 2016. All of this would pave the way for the scheduled elections to the Scottish Parliament in May that year, which would on this proposal become elections to the Parliament of an independent country.

Scotland’s Future acknowledges that the following issues would need to be the subject of  negotiation and agreement: ‘the division of financial and other assets and liabilities (including oil revenues and assignation of other tax revenues, military bases and overseas assets), the transfer to the Scottish Parliament and Government of political authority over institutions previously controlled at Westminster… and the timetable for the speediest safe removal of weapons of mass destruction from Scotland.’ Interestingly, there is also reference to the ‘on-going co-operative arrangements that the peoples of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland would share’. It is not clear what is meant by this, although notably the Scottish Government during its period in office between 2007 and 2011 produced a White Paper ‘Scotland’s Future: Draft Referendum (Scotland) Bill Consultation Paper’  which famously stated that under independence ‘the social union with the remainder of the UK would be maintained, with the nations continuing to co-operate on a range of matters’. It is not clear if this is what is meant by ‘on-going co-operative arrangements’ in Scotland’s Future. It is also acknowledged in Scotland’s Future that some matters will remain unresolved until after independence as happened in the split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia; in other words even after 2016 there would still be an on-going period of gradual separation.

Turning to process, it is also suggested that the Scottish Government will seek to make the post-referendum negotiations inclusive (2.7) by inviting ‘representatives from the other parties in the Scottish Parliament, together with representatives of Scottish civic society’ to join in these negotiations and in helping to ensure ‘the continuity of those public services which are in reserved areas.’ The basis for the interim arrangements would be a ‘constitutional platform’ to facilitate the new Parliament and Government elected in 2016. There would potentially be something of a constitutional vacuum after ‘independence day’ when the writ of the Scotland Act would no longer run but in which no new constitution would have yet been promulgated. And so (2.10) ‘until that constitution is drafted and comes into force, arrangements will be in place from independence day to consolidate the existing rights of citizens and give the Scottish Parliament and Government the legal, financial and other powers necessary to govern Scotland effectively across the full range of national issues. These arrangements will form Scotland’s constitutional platform.’ A number of questions arise: where would sovereignty rest in this period – would the Scottish Parliament take on a new sovereign power through the constitutional platform, or would there be some notional reversion to the sovereignty of the pre-1707 Scottish Parliament? And what of the Crown, the Privy Council etc.? Finally, Scotland’s Future proposes a constitutional path to terminate Westminster’s authority. The UK Parliament would legislate ‘to acknowledge the end of its power to legislate for Scotland’ (2.13) in a way similar to the Malta Independence Act 1964 and the 1931 Statute of Westminster.

There is also some discussion of the process towards a written constitution. Scotland’s Future suggests the possibility of a constitutional convention to be convened by the newly elected independent Scottish Parliament to draft this (1.7). It is not clear what shape this would take but it ‘should engage all the people of Scotland in the process of nation-building and allow them a say in defining how our country will work. (1.6)’ Reference is made to the citizen-led assemblies and constitutional conventions convened in British Columbia (2004), the Netherlands (2006), Ontario (2007) and Iceland (2010) as well as the citizen-led constitutional convention convened in Ireland in 2012. Given that such an open process is proposed we must assume that the substantive proposals for the written constitution set out in Scotland’s Future would themselves be open to revision. For example, such a constitutional convention may well decide not to include social rights and could also opt for a republican rather than monarchical system of government etc. Finally, another question is, would there be referendum to ratify this constitution and would the referendum find its way into the constitution as a standard mechanism of constitutional amendment? What we know of referendum use is that it tends to be contagious; once used to change a system of government it often finds its way into a new constitution as part of the process of future change.

It is likely that these issues will be discussed in detail over the next 18 months. Regardless of the outcome of the referendum they may well also prompt wider UK debates about constitutional change and could also help frame the landscape for further constitutional re-thinking in Scotland, even in the event of a majority No vote.

 Stephen Tierney is Director, Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law. This blog is based upon a paper given to the Law Society of Scotland on 7 March 2013. I am grateful to those present for a most fruitful discussion of the paper.

Suggested citation: Stephen Tierney, ‘After the referendum – the Scottish Government’s proposal for a written Constitution’ ,  UK Const. L. Blog (12 March 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org).

Leave a comment

Filed under Constitutional reform, Devolution, Scotland

Colm O’Cinneide: Human Rights, Devolution and the Constrained Authority of the Westminster Parliament

a_ocinneideThe debate over the place of human rights in UK constitutional law continues to run and run. The Home Secretary, Theresa May MP, has recently criticised the manner in which UK judges are interpreting the right to family life protected by Article 8 of the ECHR. A private members bill tabled by Tory MP Charlie Elphicke, the Human Rights Act 1998 (Repeal and Substitution) Bill, which would de-incorporate Convention rights and replace them with diluted ‘British’ replacements, received its Second Reading on the 1st March 2013. Furthermore, at the time of writing, the Mail on Sunday is quoting Theresa May again to the effect that the next Tory election manifesto will include a commitment to withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, de-incorporating Convention rights, or some such equivalent measure.

As a consequence, it may be a good time to highlight the fact that changing existing UK human rights law is not an easy task. Even if one leaves to one side the external diplomatic factors that may limit the UK’s freedom of action in this field, there are internal legal and political factors in play which make tampering with the HRA a more problematic project than the media headlines suggest. In particular, complex issues arise with respect to devolution and the various ways in which Convention rights have become embedded in the constitutional framework of the UK.

The HRA itself is a piece of primary legislation which applies to all public authorities throughout the UK and can be amended or repealed by the Westminster Parliament. The UK’s international relationship with the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights also comes squarely within the sphere of reserved powers. However, human rights are not per se a reserved function, and there exists a separate and distinct ‘devolution dimension’ to the UK system of rights protection. The devolved legislatures and executives in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are required to comply with ‘Convention rights’ by virtue of specific provisions set out in the devolution statues (S. 6(2)(c) and s. 24(1)(a) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998; s. 29(2)(d) and s. 57(2) of the Scotland Act 1998; s. 81(1) and s. 94(6)(c) of the Government of Wales Act 2006). They can also take measures to give further effect to the UK’s international human rights obligations when acting within the scope of their powers, including but not confined to those that arise under the ECHR (para. 3(c) of Sch. 2 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998; para. 7(2) of Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act 1998; and in general Schedule 5 of the Government of Wales Act 2006).

The existence of this ‘devolution dimension’ imposes some constraints on the freedom of the Westminster Parliament to reconstruct UK human rights law as it sees fit. For example, any change to the current requirement that the Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh legislatures must comply with Convention rights would affect the scope of their devolved powers: as a result, under existing constitutional arrangements, it would appear to trigger the Sewel Convention, meaning that Westminster would ‘normally’ have to seek the consent of the devolved legislatures before it could legislate in respect of human rights law as it applies in respect of devolved matters. Furthermore, because the devolved legislatures are able to take steps to extend human rights protection, they have the power to minimise the impact of any reduction of rights protection brought about by Westminster legislation within the sphere of devolved functions.

Thus, for example, if the Westminster Parliament wished to root out the ECHR rights from UK law and replace them with home-grown ‘British’ variants through a new Bill of Rights, it would either have to leave intact the provisions of the devolution legislation that require the Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh legislatures to comply with Convention rights, or else seek the consent of the three legislatures to the removal from Convention rights from the devolution framework. Furthermore, even if such consent was forthcoming, or the Westminster Parliament chose simply to disregard the Sewel Convention, the devolved legislatures might subsequently be able to restore much of the status quo within the sphere of devolved functions. For example, if Westminster were to repeal the HRA, the Scottish Parliament would appear to have the power to introduce a ‘Scottish HRA’ or an equivalent measure in respect of devolved matters, which could provide an equivalent or even greater level of rights protection within its sphere of application than currently available under the HRA.[1]

Furthermore, the political context is very different in the devolved regions when it comes to human rights. The recent report of the Commission on a Bill of Rights noted that ‘there was little, if any, criticism of the Strasbourg Court, of the European label of the Convention, or of human rights generally in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland’ (p. 163), while Philippe Sands and Helena Kennedy in their minority report suggest that ‘existing arrangements under the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights are not merely tolerated but strongly supported’ in the devolved regions (p. 266). In addition, as Christine Bell has discussed on this blog, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are in the course of developing their own unique approaches to human rights. This makes it unlikely that the devolved legislatures will be willing to consent to any Westminster legislation which sought to make significant changes to how human rights are protected within the sphere of devolved functions. Indeed, in giving evidence to the Commission on a Bill of Rights, the Scottish Government made it clear that it considered that the Westminster Parliament lacked the legitimacy to determine the scope of human rights protection in Scotland (see p. 166 of the Commission’s report).

Additional issues arise in respect of Northern Ireland. The Belfast Agreement specifically required that the ‘UK government will complete incorporation into Northern Ireland law of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), with direct access to the courts, and remedies for breach of the Convention’ (Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity, para. 2.). In addition, as Brice Dickson and Colin Harvey have recently discussed on this blog, a separate Bill of Rights process is underway in Northern Ireland, whose roots also lie in the provisions of the Belfast Agreement. As a result, any attempt by Westminster to alter or amend existing human rights law which applies to Northern Ireland (whether relating to devolved functions or to reserved functions such as national security) is likely to be viewed as an unwanted interference with the fragile constitutional settlement that has been constructed there on the foundations laid down by the Belfast Agreement.

Of course, the Westminster Parliament is free to alter or amend existing UK human rights law as it applies to the sphere of reserved functions, as recognised by Anthony Speaight QC in a thoughtful paper on devolution attached to the final report of the Commission on a Bill of Rights. However, even if Westminster were only to legislate in this field in respect of reserved functions (and exempted Northern Ireland from the scope of application of the proposed new law), devolution would still have the potential to create troubling inconsistencies in UK human rights law.

For example, if Westminster were to de-incorporate Convention rights and replace the HRA with a new ‘British’ Bill of Rights containing home-grown rights standards that applied in the sphere of reserved functions, Convention rights would still be applicable within the sphere of devolved functions. This could generate some complex legal issues where devolved functions in areas such as criminal justice and social welfare overlap with reserved powers such as immigration control. (These complexities would obviously be exacerbated if the entirety of Northern Irish law, including law relating to reserved functions, was exempted from the scope of the new ‘Bill of Rights’.) It would also mean that Convention rights would continue to be applied by UK courts in the context of the devolved regions, ensuring that the Strasbourg jurisprudence would continue to exert some direct influence on the development of UK law.

Alternatively, Westminster could simply choose to ignore the devolved legislatures and push through a new human rights law. However, this could generate a constitutional crisis if one or more of the devolved legislatures and/or governments were to cry foul, and it would in all probability breach the terms of the Sewel Convention. In any case, as already mentioned, the devolved legislatures might be able to limit the effects of such a measure by enacting their own devolved version of the HRA.

In general, the ‘devolution dimension’ cannot be readily ignored or sidelined in the ongoing human rights debate, as the Commission on a Bill of Rights recognised in its final report. The current parameters of the devolution settlement impose substantial legal and political constraints upon the power of the Westminster Parliament to alter existing UK human rights law. This will not come as a surprise to legal experts who are well aware of the limits to parliamentary sovereignty, as analysed by Mark Elliott, Nick Barber and others. However, discussion of these constraints have been largely absent from parliamentary or media debates on the HRA and ECHR. In particular, there has been little recognition that Convention rights have become woven into the fabric of the unwritten UK constitution in multiple different ways, which may prove very difficult to unravel.

Philippe Sands and Helena Kennedy have suggested that certain of their colleagues on the Bill of Rights Commission viewed the constraints imposed by devolution on the freedom of action of the Westminster Parliament as a case of the ‘tail wagging the dog’. There is a danger that a similar attitude may blind politicians in Westminster to the reality that the UK constitutional system is now complex, variegated and pluralist in nature. Tampering with the status of Convention rights in UK law may appease some Europhobic voters, but it risks open up some serious constitutional fractures.

Colm O’Cinneide is a Reader in Law at University College London. 

Suggested citation: C. O’Cinneide ‘Human Rights, Devolution and the Constrained Authority of the Westminster Parliament’ UK Const. L. Blog (4th March 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org)

 


[1] See the research paper written by Anthony Speaight QC and attached to the report of the Commission on a Bill of Rights, ‘Devolution Options’, pp. 243-256, especially at p. 250.

4 Comments

Filed under Devolution, Human rights, Northern Ireland