Category Archives: Scotland

Katie Boyle and Stephen Tierney: Human Rights in Transition: The Proposed Interim Constitution for Scotland

KatiestierneyThe site has recently seen posts addressing the UK’s relationship to the European Convention of Human Rightshere and here. In this post we will seek to extend the debate to the issue of Scottish independence. The framework for human rights protection contained in the Scottish Government’s recent publication, the Scottish Independence Bill: A Consultation on an Interim Constitution for Scotland (see Boyle, Tierney and McHarg) is notable in promising a more robust form of legal protection for fundamental rights (what we might call a ‘rights affirmative’ constitutional arrangement) at a time when the prevailing mood in Whitehall is for a restriction in the role of the courts.

In substantive terms the rights to be protected in the interim constitution of an independent Scotland are those contained in the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), which thereby becomes part of the Bill’s foundational constitutional framework. In this sense the arrangements mirror those of the Human Rights Act regime. But the constitutional status of these rights is potentially radically different. If the Bill is viewed through a Westminster prism as a ‘constitutional statute’ (see page 62 of the consultation paper) then the rights it contains could be subject to amendment during the period of transition to a permanent constitution if the Scottish Parliament expressly chooses to repeal or amend the Bill. However, there is some ambiguity in the Bill and broader consultation paper, since at other times it seems to be the intention of the Scottish Government that rights contained in the Bill will not be subject to parliamentary authority, but will be, in effect, entrenched. And in any case rights entrenchment is likely to be solidified following the work of the proposed Constitutional Convention process and the adoption of a new permanent written constitution. The consequence of these two processes is that the constitutionalisation of human rights – both in transition and in an envisaged permanent constitution – will require a reconceptualisation of the legislative role in Scotland and the drawing of an ever more stark contrast between the relationship of courts v legislature in Scotland on the one hand, and that between courts and Parliament in London on the other. Such a radical realignment of institutional powers should be made clear to citizens, enabling an open and inclusive debate in Scotland concerning how or indeed whether human rights should be protected from legislative will in a new Scottish constitution.

Section 26(2) of the proposed Bill provides that Scots law is of no effect in so far as it is incompatible with Convention rights. Page 56 of the consultation proposes that the Human Rights Act 1998 and Scotland Act 1998 be amended to ensure that those matters currently reserved under the Scotland Act 1998 and legislation currently exempt from an ultra vires declaration (i.e. primary legislation emanating from Westminster) should, under the Bill, be subject to the same compatibility requirements under a revised Scotland Act. This would extend the protection of those rights contained in the European Convention of Human Rights from devolved to reserved matters and create a more robust human rights framework than is currently available under the Westminster system. The courts would be able to declare legislation ultra vires the interim constitution should a breach of Convention rights be established, rendering the contravening provision or act unlawful and of no effect. This is clearly a stronger remedy than the declaration of incompatibility option available under section 4 of the Human Rights Act which does not affect the operation of a non-compatible provision and therefore defers to the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. In this sense the proposed Bill appears to place limitations on the competence of the newly independent Scottish Parliament, creating a framework model of constitutionalism potentially very different from the Westminster process model (for a discussion on framework v process models of constitutionalism see Feldman). This would be complemented by the existing duty to read legislation as compatible in so far as it is possible to do so under section 101 of the Scotland Act.

However, this is where it gets slightly complicated. The Bill proposes affording ECHR rights constitutional status yet at the same time it also nods towards parliamentary supremacy, suggesting at least the theoretical possibility that the ECHR protection mechanisms could be repealed if the Scottish Parliament expressly chose to do so. Furthermore, perhaps by omission, the section dealing with ECHR protection mentions that the Scottish Government and public bodies are bound to comply but does not expressly provide that the Scottish Parliament’s legislative competence is limited. This omission would be overcome by the overarching provision in section 26(2) that declares Scots law to be of no effect so far as it is incompatible and, under the continuation of laws (section 34) an amended version of section 29 of the Scotland Act could continue to apply, limiting the competence of the Scottish Parliament in relation to ECHR rights and EU law. This is clarified in the explanatory notes to the Bill,

‘The Scotland Act’s human rights ‘bite’ is sharper than that of the Human Rights Act. The renewed Scotland Act will apply the higher threshold – that only applies to Scottish Parliament legislation at present – across all legislation, whether passed at Westminster or by the Scottish Parliament.’

So, whilst the wording of the Bill is unclear on this, it can be implied that the Bill proposes to retain the current, limited, legislative competence framework of the Scotland Act and extend it to reserved matters. By way of example, this would mean that on independence day all reserved matters that are currently in ‘ECHR limbo’ (such as the blanket ban on prisoner voting rights and the Strasbourg judgment in the Hirst case) would need to be remedied, otherwise an application to a Scottish court could result in an ultra vires declaration, rendering the offending provision unconstitutional and of ‘no effect’ in Scots law. In this sense we can see a ‘rights affirmative’ approach at play in relation to those rights recognised under the ECHR.

With the ECHR as the substantive benchmark the Bill does not extend legal coverage to the broad spectrum of rights recognised in international law, such as the right to adequate housing, the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, the right to work, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to take part in cultural life and so on (see for example the scope of rights covered in the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which the UK is party to but which it has not incorporated into domestic law). There is reference in the Bill to some additional rights, such as equality, children’s wellbeing, the interests of the island communities, entitlement to a healthy environment and protection of natural resources (sections 28-32). Although the Bill would codify these references under a single statute, it would appear for the most part that there is nothing in the substance of the provisions that goes any further than protections currently available under existing legislation which would continue to operate under the continuation of laws in section 34 of the Bill. For example, the provisions relating to equality do not go any further than the procedural protections available under the Equality Act 2010. The reference to children’s wellbeing confers a duty on public authorities to ‘seek to safeguard, support and promote the wellbeing of children in Scotland.’ Again, this arguably does not go any further than existing legislation such as the duties conferred on public authorities under the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. The right to a healthy environment potentially extends the scope of justiciable environmental rights in the Bill. On the other hand, the intention could be merely to codify already existing case law under Article 8 of the ECHR. The references to additional rights are therefore better considered as overarching principles rather than substantive provisions that confer additional rights. In the explanatory notes the Scottish Government explains that the intention of this approach is to assist in mainstreaming existing mechanisms. Many human rights advocates may well argue that this does not go far enough.

So, although the interim constitution Bill provides a more robust human rights protection framework than is currently available under the Westminster model, it is also quite restrictive in the wider recognition of additional rights beyond those contained in the ECHR – the ECHR predominantly focussing on civil and political, and not economic, social and cultural rights. Having said that, the proposals leave the future of human rights protection mechanisms in Scotland open for deliberation under the Constitutional Convention process. It is proposed that the interim constitution would be replaced by a written constitution post-independence day following the deliberation and constitution-framing exercise to be conducted by the Constitutional Convention established under an Act of the newly elected independent Scottish Parliament (section 33). And, whilst the interim constitution is a robust (wide reaching with effective remedies) but restricted (only protecting a limited number of rights) model, it does not mean that the same would apply under the terms of a permanent written constitution. The permanent constitution could well embed more wide-reaching human rights protections. In the same vein, the Constitutional Convention might recommend that existing protection mechanisms be reduced or their justiciability qualified (although this might cause significant difficulties if these were deemed to be at odds with Scotland’s obligations under the Council of Europe and European Union). This brings us back to the idea of the interim constitution as a ‘constitutional statute’. This term as understood within a ‘Westminster’ constitutional mentality would make it exempt from implied repeal but not express repeal: in this sense the Scottish Parliament could legislate expressly to amend initial rights protection mechanisms contained in the interim constitution should it so choose. But given the ambiguity in the Bill and supporting documentation to which we have alluded, such an eventuality would raise an interesting issue of legality for the legislation in question. A case might well come before the courts which would test the limits of the Scottish Parliament’s competence in relation to the interim constitution’s authority to bind this Parliament into the future, offering the prospect of a clean break with the very notion of legislative supremacy.

The Scottish Government points out that enhancing rights protection is something that it would suggest be included in the permanent written constitution. Under this proposal, it would be for the Constitutional Convention to decide whether additional protections be afforded to economic, social and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights, such as has recently been recommended by Constitutional Conventions in Ireland and New Zealand. The Bill’s proposed approach differs from the path taken in the interim constitution of South Africa which set out ‘constitutional principles’ to be embedded in the permanent constitution – including equality measures and extensive human rights protection – meaning the road map for human rights was much clearer and more prescriptive in the South African interim arrangements than that set out in the Scottish Government’s proposals. The much broader (and less prescriptive) road map is arguably no bad thing – leaving the decisions on what ought to be included in the final written constitution to the participative Constitutional Convention process.

On the other hand, much of the Scottish Government’s rhetoric around the referendum debate has been about securing a fairer and more inclusive society in an independent Scotland. There ought to be a debate about whether this could, or should, be reflected in any proposed interim or permanent constitution. There also needs to be a debate about how this commitment could be, or whether it ought to be, protected from change by successive political administrations. It is crucial that the people of Scotland should have the opportunity to consider and contribute to the potential models of constitutionalisation of such aspirations – whether they be through channels of political representation in Parliament, through general mission statements or overarching principles, or through the entrenchment of fundamental values in a framework constitution that binds the legislature, executive and the judiciary in the exercise of state power. The consultation process on the proposed Bill offers an opportunity to begin this discussion even before the referendum is held. Interested parties can now begin to contribute to the debate on the future of human rights protection in Scotland should the referendum result in a yes vote. Regardless of differing views as to whether or how human rights should be entrenched, and if so which are suitable for such constitutional protection, what is surely critical is that in the exercise of these debates the process of decision-making about constitution framing be genuinely deliberative, informed and inclusive. In this sense we would reassert that, should there be a yes vote, the Constitutional Conventionbe designed very carefully if it is to be genuinely deliberative and representative’.

In the event of a no vote the future of human rights is perhaps even less certain – the recent UK Cabinet reshuffle suggests that a move towards human rights reform is very much on the Conservative agenda with Prime Minister David Cameron promising to alter, potentially radically, the UK’s relationship to the ECHR. The Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan has also set out Labour’s plans for a less intrusive Human Rights Act, offering to limit the extent to which Strasbourg jurisprudence is treated as binding and thereby seeking to shift the balance of judicial power back towards the British courts (for a discussion on this see Elliot and Mead). In light of these proposals, the regime offered in the Scottish Government’s proposed Bill strikes a very different tone, seeking to legally enshrine European human rights provisions ever further in Scotland by transferring ECHR devolved protection mechanisms to reserved matters. If indeed the legal guarantees offered to human rights are further restricted by Westminster in the next few years then it would appear that, in the area of human rights law, an independent Scotland may well look remarkably different from the rest of the UK.

 

The research for this blog was funded by Stephen Tierney’s ESRC Senior Research Fellowship under the ESRC Future of the UK and Scotland programme.

Professor Stephen Tierney is 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 and leads the The Scottish Independence Referendum: A Democratic Audit’ research project.

Dr Katie Boyle is a constitutional lawyer and Economic and Social Research Council Fellow at the University of Edinburgh working on the ESRC funded research project ‘The Scottish Independence Referendum: A Democratic Audit’.

(Suggested citation: S. Tierney and K. Boyle, ‘Human Rights in Transition: The Proposed Interim Constitution for Scotland’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (1st August 2014) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/)).

 

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Edward Kirton-Darling: Missing: political genius. If found, please return to the British People, care of Palace of Westminster, SW1A.

Edward2If Scottish voters chose independence in the referendum in September, the SNP confirmed on 16 June that a written constitution for Scotland would be drawn up. Where does that leave the rest of the UK? In an endeavour to consider what Scottish independence would mean for the rUK, this post considers Lord Bingham’s accounts of the proper relationship between the Rule of Law and Parliamentary Sovereignty, and, drawing on his concern about an imbalance within Parliament, argues that if Scottish were to secede, this would further unbalance the rUK’s constitutional order.

Lord Bingham, the Rule of Law and Parliamentary Sovereignty

In 2007, Lord Bingham set out his perspective on the relationship between the rule of law and parliamentary sovereignty in a Commemoration Oration at Kings. Much of the speech was subsequently reproduced in 2010 in Chapter 12 of his book, but for one significant amendment, which I will come to below. Bingham argued that fundamental rights must be incorporated into any proper account of the rule of law, and having set out the rights contained in the ECHR, which are “as good a check list as any,” he paused to wonder that “It is hard to understand how this very basic and practice catalogue of rights has come to be portrayed to the public as some ill-conceived, European-inspired, affront to the commonsensical conduct of government.” For Bingham, rights are not enough; at the heart of the rule of law is democracy, and the ability of a citizen to have a say in the laws by which they are bound.

Lord Bingham then turned to parliamentary sovereignty and dismissed arguments suggesting there were legal limits on Parliament’s ability to constitutionally legislate howsoever it wished. Where legislation which interfered with fundamental rights was clear and unambiguous, the courts have no power to annul or modify such enactments. Where courts do have such power, it exists by operation of Acts of Parliament, and if Parliament told them to do so, courts would stop interfering. He reserved particular ire for arguments based on common law fundamental rights – whether founded in obiter remarks by Sir Edward Coke in 1610 or Lord Steyn in 2005 – concluding that “The British people have not repelled the extraneous power of the papacy in spiritual matters and the pretensions of royal power in temporal in order to subject themselves to the unchallengeable rulings of unelected judges.”

However, this stirring paean to a sovereign British Parliament left Lord Bingham with the problem of the protection of fundamental rights. He was not persuaded by the argument that in practice, Parliament will not interfere with fundamental rights, indeed it was not hard for him to envisage such interference. Instead, checks and balances within the concept of Parliamentary Sovereignty hold the key, and traditionally, the rule of law was protected by the existence of 3 powerful independent players in the Crown, the Lords and the Commons. In this context, the contemporary “vice at the heart of our constitutional system” is the overweening unrestricted power of whoever is in a majority in the House of Commons. Such a party can effectively act as it wishes, including passing legislation which interferes with the rule of law, and Lord Bingham argues that this serious problem, once squarely confronted, can surely be resolved by “the political genius of the British people.”

Crucially, the speech at Kings does not prescribe or even suggest what such a solution might look like. The tenor of the lecture, grounded in respect and admiration of the UK’s constitutional traditions, points towards a political solution to the tension between Parliament and the rule of law; maintaining a Parliament capable of legislating in any way it wished, but fixing the malaise by resolving the imbalance in the constituent parts of the sovereign Parliament; shackling the House of Commons, rather than the sovereign Parliament.

By 2010, this argument had changed (as I discuss below), but in relation to Scottish independence, there are two aspects of Bingham’s analysis which are important: (1) whether the Union with Scotland limited Parliament’s law making powers, and 2) how Scottish independence might affect the already unbalanced constitution.

Act of Union with Scotland & Devolution

In relation to devolution, Lord Bingham entirely dismissed any argument that Parliament had lost the power to legislate for Scotland (or Wales or NI). He maintained that as with the HRA and the EU, Parliament had curtailed its own power by express authority, and could revoke that power, at least in theory. However, the only chink which Bingham partially conceded in the armour of an all-powerful sovereign Parliament related to the question of Scotland. Bingham said:

It has been suggested, with some judicial support, that the principle of parliamentary sovereignty did not obtain in Scotland before 1707 and that the Union with Scotland Act 1706 cannot itself be amended or abrogated since it gave effect to the Treaty of Union in which certain provisions were agreed to be and were described in the Act as unalterable. The merits of this argument are far from clear. It is hard to see how the pre-1707 Scottish Parliament could have done anything more fundamental than abolish itself, and it is hard to accept that the Westminster Parliament could not modify the Act of Union if there were a clear majority in favour of doing so. But if, which I doubt, there is an exception here to the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, it is a very limited exception born of the peculiar circumstances pertaining to the union with Scotland and throws no doubt on the general applicability of the principle.

If Scotland votes yes to independence, we will shortly find out if Lord Bingham is correct, and political reality suggests his doubts are valid. The recent House of Lords Constitution Committee report on constitutional implications of the referendum concludes that a, relatively short, Act of Parliament would be capable of recognising independence for Scotland and the end of the UK’s legislative competence over Scotland. Clearly, If Scotland votes yes, and the UK Parliament passes legislation amending the Acts of Union, whether or not it existed before, this one possible exception cannot survive. However, this argument for a limited UK Parliament has been primarily limited to Scottish jurists and academics, as Baroness Hale acknowledged in Jackson v. AG [2005] UKHL 56, at para 159, stating “The concept of Parliamentary sovereignty which has been fundamental to the constitution of England and Wales since the 17th century (I appreciate that Scotland may have taken a different view) means that Parliament can do anything.” A resolution of the Scottish question will consequently have limited impact on arguments about sovereignty in the rUK.

Similarly, arguments over devolution’s role in undermining the classic theory of a sovereign Parliament (dismissed by Lord Bingham, and argued by Gavin Little in Scotland and Parliamentary Sovereignty (2004) 24(4) Legal Studies 540) will become outdated if Scotland votes yes to independence. For critics of Bingham’s approach, it may make little difference, as other putative substantive limits on Parliament remain and judges will continue to engage in constitutional analysis (see for example, M. Elliott U.K. Const. L. Blog (23rd January 2014) and Vernon Bogdanor Imprisoned by a Doctrine 32(1) OJLS 179). Thus Scottish independence will not definitively settle the question of legal limits to Parliament’s power either way, but as I argue below, it will have an impact on Parliament itself.

An Unbalanced Constitution

Lord Bingham’s 2007 resolution of the tension between a sovereign Parliament and fundamental rights under the rule of law was to turn to a critique of Parliament. In his account, there are no permissible legally enforceable limits to Parliament’s power, but the existence of checks and balances within a sovereign democratic Parliament would prevent express interference with rights. As such he proposes a Madison-style approach to avoiding majoritarianism, emphasising productive tensions within the legislative branch of government.

Alison Young’s post on this blog on 17th February 2014 argued that debate over whether judges or Parliament are supreme misses the point. Instead constitutional pluralism is evidenced by courts and Parliament checking each other’s excesses, with both asserting sovereignty in different circumstances, and neither able to finally demonstrate supremacy. The argument suggests that constitutional strength comes from the tension between institutions and their ability to exert restraint on each other.

Combining these two accounts suggests that intra-institutional checks and balances are important, and constitutional plurality is protected by tensions, both between constitutional institutions and within those institutions. Taking Bingham’s argument one step further, and focussing on Parliament in particular, productive tensions within the House of Commons, ensuring effective scrutiny of legislation and restricting a Government by requiring it to take different perspectives into account, is part of what ensures legitimacy and authority – and protects rights – in the UK’s constitutional order.

Concern about an imbalance within Parliament is not a recent development – Lord Bingham quotes a Victorian Lord Chief Justice with approval:

The constitution has lodged the sacred deposit of sovereign authority in a chest locked by three different keys, confided to the custody of three different trustees … One of them is now at length, after ages of struggle, effectually prevented from acting alone; but another of the two is said to enjoy the privilege of striking off the other two locks, when, for any purpose of its own, it wishes to lay hands on the treasure.

What difference will the independence of Scotland make to this debate? It is instructive to compare mid-Victorian Britain to a future rUK to consider this question. The criticism of an over-powerful House of Commons was made in a context in which the Monarch had been prevented from acting alone, but the House of Lords retained the power to veto, and in which party discipline (and consequent executive power over both Houses) was much weaker. Powerful local government, championed by J. Toulmin Smith and exemplified by the activities of Joseph Chamberlain in Birmingham, provided a political counterweight to Westminster, and economic power was split between London, established regional centres like Manchester and Glasgow, and newly developing industrial hubs like Middlesbrough, Gladstone’s “infant Hercules.”

Many of these political and economic balances are either gone or are dramatically denuded; with London, the House of Commons and the government within Parliament now far more dominant. Other restricting factors have emerged. The devolved institutions are one example, and while other limiting factors could be identified – some might point to the impact of social media and more transparent government, while stronger English regional voices may be emerging, see for example the launch of the North East Party on 26 May this year, – it is clear that the secession of Scotland would have an impact on the political checks and balances within the Commons itself.

Firstly, this is because the removal of Scottish MPs will result in a concurrent increase in the proportion of MPs voting with the government as part of the ‘payroll’ vote. Around 140 members (95 paid, and an estimated 45 unpaid Parliamentary Private Secretaries) are obliged by convention to vote with the government. The 95 members figure is fixed as an absolute number in primary legislation (while the number of PPS’ is not included and fluctuates). The result following Scottish independence – if no amendment is made to the payroll vote – will be that almost a quarter of the House of Commons will not generally be permitted to exercise an independent judgment on legislative matters. Such an increase may not have a dramatic impact on the Commons by itself (the current figure is approximately 22%), but is part of a long term trend of an increase in the ‘payroll’ vote which has already been subjected to fierce criticism (see the Public Administration Select Committee report “Too Many Ministers?” 9th Report, Session 2009-10).

Furthermore, as Keating has argued, Scottish MPs have traditionally operated on a regionally distinctive basis (See Michael J. Keating Parliamentary Behaviour as a Test of Scottish Integration into the United Kingdom, Legislative Studies Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Aug., 1978), pp. 409-430). He showed (albeit pre-devolution) that the involvement of the majority of Scottish MPs in UK-wide politics was primarily aimed at seeking Scottish advantages. It could be argued therefore that removal of Scottish MPs would have little impact on a rUK, however, Keating shows disproportionately strong involvement by Scottish MPs on UK-wide Bills on economic affairs, in particular agricultural and fisheries (now devolved) and trade and industry (which is not devolved). Keating also argues that UK-wide legislation has been affected by Scottish members acting in a regionally distinctive way, illustrating this with the example of a failed attempt to legalise homosexuality across the UK in 1965 (subsequently applied to England and Wales only). Thus a Scottish MP arguing for the (perceived) best interests of Scotland affects the rUK, either through pushing UK-wide policies which are (perceived to be) best for Scotland, or through raising an argument for Scottish exceptionalism, with resulting negotiation, debate and scrutiny of proposed policies.

In a more recent paper, Keating and Cairney have shown that in a political culture moving towards a political class dominated by university educated middle class professionals, Scottish MPs were traditionally more diverse, “conforming more closely to the class stereotypes” (See Michael J. Keating and Paul Cairney, A New Elite? Politicians and Civil Servants in Scotland after Devolution Parliamentary Affairs (January 2006) 59 (1): 43-59). Although the upper class/public school/military representatives have subsequently disappeared from Scottish politics, Scottish MPs remain more likely to be from working class backgrounds than their English and Welsh counterparts.

Thus regionally distinctive behaviour by Scottish MPs has had implications for legislation affecting the whole of the UK, and the removal of Scottish members will have an homogenising effect on the Commons post-independence, as well as removing one political party in the shape of the SNP entirely. Furthermore, the removal of Scottish devolution would also remove an inter-UK test of subsidiary; a hurdle which demanded attention when any policy was considered or legislation introduced.

Conclusion

Potential Scottish independence can be put into a context in which the UK might conceivably leave the EU and repeal the HRA. Many of the arguments for these steps appeal to a sense in which Parliament has lost its democratic sovereign right to govern. Their appeal is to a Diceyean Britain in which Parliament is supreme. However, in Dicey’s late-Victorian Britain, significant checks on majority rule remained; formally in the shape of a still powerful Lords and far more interventionist Monarch; politically in a UK with far more powerful economic and political regional traditions; and theoretically, with powerful arguments opposing an unlimited Parliament built on the Acts of Union.

Checks and balances remain part of the UK’s constitutional order, but a result of Scottish membership of the UK will be a reduction in the potential restrictions on a majority party in the House of Commons. If intra-institutional plurality is a source of legitimacy and authority, this reduction in plurality in the Commons undermines Parliament itself. Did Lord Bingham predict this? His later (2010) formulation of the way to resolve the tension between Parliament’s sovereignty and the rule of law was to tentatively propose a written constitution. Perhaps he had given up on the political genius of the British people in the interim, or perhaps he had higher hopes of us than we have recently been able to evidence.

 

Edward Kirton-Darling is a doctoral candidate in socio-legal studies at the University of Kent.

(Suggested citation: E. Kirton-Darling, ‘Missing: political genius. If found, please return to the British People, care of Palace of Westminster SW1A’  U.K. Const. L. Blog (26th June 2014) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/)).

 

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Aileen McHarg: A Constitution for an Independent Scotland: the Draft Scottish Independence Bill

aileenIn her speech at Edinburgh University launching the draft Scottish Independence Bill, Nicola Sturgeon claimed that ‘the prospect of a Constitutional Convention and a written constitution are, in themselves, positive reasons for voting Yes.’  Many intending Yes voters will agree with that statement, viewing independence not only as a way of addressing Scotland’s perceived democratic deficit, but also as an opportunity for democratic renewal.

The adoption of a permanent written constitution is, however, a post-independence project.  In the interim, Scotland will require a set of constitutional arrangements to enable it to function as an independent state.  The draft Bill, which will only be introduced into the Scottish Parliament in the event of a Yes vote (and will require a preliminary transfer of power from Westminster), is thus intended to provide the necessary ‘constitutional platform’ for independence, as well as to impose a binding obligation on the Scottish Parliament to establish a Constitutional Convention to begin drafting a permanent constitution as soon as possible after independence.

The key problem for the interim constitution is one of legitimacy.  While the permanent constitution is to be adopted through a widely participative and deliberative process, independent of both Government and Parliament, the interim constitution is the initiative of the Scottish Government alone.  Although the draft Bill is subject to consultation, it will be enacted as an ordinary Act of the Scottish Parliament (ASP).  There are two dangers here.  One is that the interim constitution is a politically partisan document which lacks broad acceptance.  This is particularly problematic if it takes longer than expected to agree the permanent constitution or, indeed, if agreement ultimately proves impossible.  The other is that the interim constitution conditions the content of the permanent constitution through a process of path dependency, thus in practice blunting the radical democratic edge of the Constitutional Convention.  Both considerations counsel in favour of conservativism in the interim constitution, providing as much institutional and legal continuity with Scotland’s pre-independence constitutional arrangements as possible.

How well, then, does the draft Bill measure up?

There is indeed a good deal of continuity.  Scotland will remain a parliamentary democracy, with legislative power vested in the Scottish Parliament and executive power in the Scottish Government, accountable to the Parliament and through the Parliament to the people (ss 7(2), 10, 11, and 12).  It will also still be a constitutional monarchy, with the Queen as head of state, and all existing legal rights, powers and privileges of the Crown in Scotland preserved intact (ss 7(1) and 9).  Autonomous, elected local government will remain in place (s 17), and the continued independence of the judiciary and continued commitment to the rule of law are declared (ss 13 and 15).  The European Convention on Human Rights will still apply in Scots law and will be extended to cover all legislative and executive functions on the higher standard currently applied to devolved functions under the Scotland Act, rather than the lower standard applicable to reserved functions under the Human Rights Act (ss 26 and 27).  On the assumption that Scotland will be a member of the European Union, the supremacy of EU law is also explicitly accepted (s 24(2)).

There is, of course, some necessary innovation to provide Scotland with the full legal and institutional apparatus of an independent state.  The draft Bill thus provides for the concept of Scottish citizenship (s 18), establishes a Scottish civil service (s 16), and ends appeals to the UK Supreme Court (s 14).  It also makes provision for the conduct of international affairs and foreign policy, membership of international organisations, and ratification and incorporation of international agreements (ss 19 – 22).

Aspect of the draft Bill do, however, go beyond what is strictly necessary.  For instance, section 2 declares that ‘In Scotland, the people are sovereign.’  Arguably, this is not an innovation, but rather reflects a long-standing Scottish constitutional tradition which survived the Union with England.  The difficulty, though, is in understanding what the principle of popular sovereignty means when divorced from the specific claims of a right to self-determination and the rejection of Parliamentary sovereignty which gave it potency in the context of the Union.  Section 3 does attempt to give it content, asserting (in addition to the right to self-determination) that ‘[a]ll State power and authority … derives from, and is subject to, the sovereign will of the people, and those exercising State power and authority are accountable for it to the people.’  But how exactly this is to be reconciled with other aspects of the constitution, such as judicial independence, the continued acceptance of the royal prerogative as a source of executive power, or the supremacy of EU law remains to be seen.

More problematically, the Bill also contains a number of substantive value commitments.  These include: an obligation on the Scottish Government to pursue negotiations for nuclear disarmament and the removal of nuclear weapons from Scottish territory (s 23); constitutionalisation of the principle of equality (s 28); a duty to promote children’s wellbeing (s 29); protection for island communities (s 30); the right to a healthy environment (s 31); and a duty to use natural resources sustainably (s 32).  Whether a written constitution should contain substantive commitments of this kind is controversial, and they are particularly objectionable when it is not clear that there is broad public support for their inclusion.

However, the significance of this objection is perhaps reduced by a deeper continuity in the proposed interim constitution.  As already noted, the Bill will be enacted as an ordinary ASP, and the consultation paper accompanying the Bill makes clear that it will not have any entrenched legal status.  Nor, indeed, will Scotland’s interim constitution be a codified one.  Rather, the Bill will take its place as one of a number of constitutional statutes, alongside a revised Scotland Act, the Human Rights Act, the Representation of the People Acts and others.  As such, it will be amendable by subsequent Parliaments by simple majority, although amendment will have to be express, not merely implied, and there will be a certification process adopted to ensure that amendments are properly identified and considered.

Some people may object that this provides insufficient security for Scotland’s post-independence constitutional arrangements.  It is, however, a valid constitutional model, which should not be rejected out of hand.  An important task for the Constitutional Convention in drafting the permanent constitution will be to consider how best to reconcile the competing virtues of constitutional certainty and flexibility; in other words, how best to prevent abuse of power without unduly constraining future generations and excessively empowering unelected judges.  In the meantime it is clear that, in constitutional terms, independence for Scotland will be as much evolutionary as revolutionary.

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

 

This post originally appeared on the Scottish Constitutional Futures Forum Blog.

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Stephen Tierney: Leaving Westminster: Constitutional Supremacy in an Independent Scotland

stierneyOn 16 June the Scottish Government unveiled its Scottish Independence Bill in an address by Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy First Minister of Scotland, to the Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law.

The referendum on independence for Scotland will be held on 18 September this year and commentators have been waiting for a detailed elaboration of the constitutional steps that would be taken by the Scottish Government in the event of a Yes vote by the people. The Scottish Independence Bill (‘the Bill’) sets out an interim constitution which, it is intended, will be passed by the Scottish Parliament to take effect on Independence Day (scheduled for 24 March 2016), and also paves the way for the drafting of a permanent constitution by a constitutional convention which will probably commence work later that year.

In a related post one member of my research team has looked at the transitional arrangements necessary to bring these changes about. In this piece I will set out the background to the proposal, look at the terms of the proposed interim constitution contained within the Bill, and consider the process by which a permanent constitution might be drafted. I will conclude by asking whether highly elaborate and detailed constitutions are really needed in a healthy parliamentary democracy, or whether in fact an independent Scotland would be better served by maintaining the advantages of the Westminster model, trusting in an open political process in which important decisions are left to parliament or to citizens acting directly in referendums.

The story so far

The Scottish Government reached agreement with the UK Government in October 2012 on the principle that Scotland can hold a referendum on independence. This was endorsed by way of secondary legislation and, consequently, the Scottish Parliament passed into law two bills establishing the franchise for the referendum and the broader process rules.

Furthermore, the Bill builds upon an earlier declaration of the Scottish Government’s constitutional ambitions. In November 2013 the Scottish Government published its White Paper, Scotland’s Future, which stated that an independent Scotland will have a new written constitution. This paper announced that Westminster parliamentary supremacy would be replaced with the principle of popular sovereignty, a commitment reiterated in the Bill (section 2): ‘In Scotland, the people are sovereign’. It is however anticipated that this sovereignty will manifest itself in a highly elaborate written constitution as a result of which the powers of the Scottish Parliament will be substantially curtailed.

Is the Scottish Independence Bill significant?

The Bill is notable for setting out both the substantive terms of the interim constitution and the process by which a permanent written constitution will be drafted following the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2016. The proposal is of course only for an interim constitution. It would take effect on ‘Independence Day’ in March 2016 (s1) but would continue in force only until a permanent written constitution for the State ‘is agreed by or on behalf of the people of Scotland’ (s4). We also need to contextualise this since it is a long way from taking effect. First, there would need to be a Yes vote in the referendum which current opinion polls do not suggest is likely. Secondly, the Bill is being offered up for consultation, so even its draft form is not set in stone. Thirdly, the passage of the Bill by the Scottish Parliament prior to independence would require legislation or at the very least a s30 Order in Council under the Scotland Act 1998, transferring the necessary powers to the Scottish Parliament. And fourthly, in being passed into law by the Scottish Parliament, the Bill could again be significantly amended.

But if the ‘Yes Scotland’ campaign is victorious in September the draft Bill will no doubt be the blueprint for the early years of Scottish independence. The Scottish Government, with a majority in the Scottish Parliament and with the momentum of a referendum victory, will doubtless get its way in the parliament after September. Secondly, although intended only as an interim measure, there may well be path dependency whereby a number of its provisions eventually find their way into a permanent constitutional document (the Scottish Government expressly anticipates this – Explanatory Notes p64).

The Interim Constitution: a bridge from parliamentary to constitutional supremacy?

There is no attempt in the Bill to put all of its provisions beyond the ordinary legislative process; the interim constitution is on its face open to repeal or amendment by ordinary act of the Scottish Parliament.

It is anticipated that in due course there will be a permanent written constitution in which the supremacy of that constitution over the powers of the Scottish Parliament is expressly declared. But until then, during the interim constitutional period, the Scottish Parliament will operate through a regime of self-imposed legislative restrictions in a limited number of areas. Most notably the Bill seeks to maintain the current provision contained in s29(2)(d) of the Scotland Act 1998 whereby the laws of the Parliament can be struck down on the grounds of incompatibility with Convention Rights (see the Bill ss 26 and 27). It is also anticipated that the Bill will ‘sit alongside… a refreshed and rewritten Scotland Act’ (Explanatory Notes p50), which will no doubt reiterate the human rights restriction, and will integrate the Human Rights Act 1998 into this renewed Scotland Act (partly through the principle of continuity of laws – the Bill, s34). We should also note s 24 which provides ‘Scots law is of no effect so far as it is inconsistent with EU law’. Therefore, although Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act will be repealed, freeing the Scottish Parliament from the constraints of those matters currently reserved to the Westminster Parliament, the interim constitution is intended to re-impose restrictions on the competence of the parliament, from the inside as it were.

In technical terms the model will be of interest to Westminster commentators because it suggests a period of half-way transition from the Westminster model. The Explanatory Notes p60 make clear that there will be no ‘hard amendment formula’ in the interim arrangements. The status of the interim constitution will be preserved in part by a ‘certification system’ whereby a minister or MSP introducing a bill to parliament would declare if the new act would amend the existing interim constitution. The planned Scottish Supreme Court (see below) could not declare such amendments to be unconstitutional but could strike down the laws of the Scottish Parliament if incompatible with EU law or Convention rights.

This is a complex set of arrangements and after independence the status of the interim constitution will no doubt be addressed by the new Scottish Supreme Court (see below). It would be interesting to observe how the court would make sense of this quasi-entrenchment of rights and EU law in a system where the interim constitution itself is not entrenched. If the Scottish Parliament did act incompatibly with Convention Rights or EU law, in a fully self-conscious way, would a court consider this to be unconstitutional or would it treat ss 26 and 27 as self-imposed restrictions which the parliament of an independent Scotland is free to amend at will?

A permanent constitution for Scotland: entrenching policy?

One should be sceptical of course of the very idea of a ‘permanent’ constitution. But whereas some countries do change constitutions frequently, in the post-war West constitutions have enjoyed more stability than in earlier times and in other parts of the world. We can assume then that a ‘permanent’ constitution for Scotland may indeed be a document of considerable durability.

One notable aspect of the Scottish Government’s proposal is the desire to entrench within a permanent constitution so many issues which are in effect policy preferences.

In its 2013 White Paper the Scottish Government offered a fairly extensive list of what it thinks the constitution should contain. These have continued to be central to its vision for independence and a number of them appear in the interim draft constitution contained in the Bill. For example:

  • equality of opportunity and entitlement to live free of discrimination and prejudice (see also the Bill s28 – although there is no specific reference in s28 to prejudice)
  • entitlement to public services and to a standard of living that, as a minimum, secures dignity and self-respect and provides the opportunity for people to realise their full potential both as individuals and as members of wider society (not in the Bill)
  • protection of the environment and the sustainable use of Scotland’s natural resources to embed Scotland’s commitment to sustainable development and tackling climate change (the Bill ss 32 and 33)
  • a ban on nuclear weapons being based in Scotland (the Bill s23 contains a commitment to ‘pursue negotiations with a view to securing… the safe and expeditious removal from the territory of Scotland of nuclear weapons based there’.)
  • controls on the use of military force and a role for an independent Scottish Parliament in approving and monitoring its use (no specific reference in the Bill but s19, as well as committing Scotland to respecting international law, extends this also to promoting peace, justice and security)
  • the existence and status of local government (the Bill s17)
  • rights in relation to healthcare, welfare and pensions (not in the Bill)
  • children’s rights (a duty on the Scottish Government to promote the wellbeing of children in Scotland – the Bill s29)
  • rights concerning other social and economic matters, such as the right to education and a Youth Guarantee on employment, education or training (not in the Bill)

It is notable that in the White Paper there was no commitment that a number of the proposed rights, such as the opportunity of education, training or employment and rights to welfare support and health care would be legally enforceable by courts but rather the more open-ended suggestion that they will be ‘questions of social justice at the forefront of the work of Scotland’s Parliament, government and public institutions.’ Notably, these rights do not find their way into the Bill at all. But they may well reappear following the consultation process, or may find their way into a permanent constitution. In such an event, enforceability will be an issue, with a debate likely as to whether and how these are to be in any way legally actionable.

The Bill also declares that Scotland is a ‘constitutional monarchy’ (s7) and ‘the Queen in Head of State’ (s9). In the White Paper it was added that Scotland would remain a constitutional monarchy ‘for as long as the people of Scotland wish us to be so’. This suggests that the head of state issue could be revisited in the process of drafting the permanent constitution. With the commitment in the Bill to popular sovereignty we might expect a debate about the compatibility of these different commitments. 

Sovereignty of the Judiciary

The Bill also provides that the existing high courts, the Court of Session and High Court of Justiciary, will be in their respective areas of competence ‘the Supreme Court of Scotland’ (s14).

It is interesting that the current court system will continue. The Bill suggests that judges will be given fundamental powers including, in a permanent constitution, the power to review acts of the Scottish Parliament on a wide range of issues. Since judges will become very important political actors in an independent Scotland there will no doubt also be consideration as to whether a new, specialist constitutional court might be needed and also an enquiry into how judges are appointed.

If it comes to drafting a permanent constitution it should also be noted that there are also other options available for constitutional review, such as a review committee of Parliament which could advise that draft legislation might be counter to constitutional principles, Parliament then retaining power to accept or reject this advice. The notion that judicial review of legislation is the automatic default option is highly questionable.

Drafting the Constitution: A Scottish Constitutional Convention?

The White Paper provides that, following the elections of May 2016, a constitutional convention will be established to ‘prepare the written constitution’. This commitment is stated more firmly in the Bill (s33): ‘The Scottish Parliament must, as soon as possible after Independence Day, make provision by Act of the Parliament for the establishment of an independent Constitutional Convention to be charged with the task of drawing up a written constitution for agreement by or on behalf of the people of Scotland.’ One small point is that ‘as soon as possible’ could be read to mean before the parliamentary elections scheduled for May 2016. From the Explanatory Notes one must assume this is not the intention of this provision since it would contradict the stated intention of the Scottish Government that it would be for the post-May 2016 Parliament to appoint the Convention.

The White Paper did not offer much detail as to the design of this convention, except that it would be ‘open, participative and inclusive’ and that the new constitution ‘should be designed by the people of Scotland, for the people of Scotland’. The Bill also leaves the membership of the convention and its operational rules for the Scottish Parliament to determine, including ‘the procedure by which the written constitution prepared by the Convention is to be agreed by or on behalf of the people.’ (s33). In other words, we don’t know yet if a referendum will be used to ratify a permanent constitution for Scotland.

The duty to establish a convention is a legally binding commitment within the Bill but since the Bill is open to repeal in the same way as any other act of the Scottish Parliament it will not in fact prevent the Scottish Parliament should it later wish, by way of legislation, to delay this process or amend how a new constitution is to be brought about. Again the response of the Scottish Supreme Court to such legislation would be interesting.

The Bill and its explanatory notes don’t offer any detailed view as to what the convention should look like, but we know from the White Paper that the Scottish Government has been looking at ‘international best practice’ and the practical experience of other countries such as citizen-led assemblies and constitutional conventions British Columbia (2004), the Netherlands (2006), Ontario (2007) and Iceland (2010). This raises the question: will the process really be a popular and meaningful engagement with citizens, or will it be a largely elite-led event? Will in fact the new constitution be drafted by elites – politicians, civic society organisations, business interests, trade unions and local authorities? The Explanatory Notes attached to the Bill point towards a broad approach to civil society engagement. But there are significant democratic risks associated with constitutional conventions in relation to representation and accountability. There is also the problem of such processes being dominated by the most vocal elements of civil society who can use the process to embed their own particular policy preferences in the constitution which may not have the support of a plurality of citizens. In short, any move towards a permanent written constitution should be worked out very carefully to ensure that the process is genuinely democratic, popular and deliberative.

Inclusion of all parties?

The parties which constitute the ‘Better Together’ organisation – campaigning to keep Scotland in the UK – tend not to comment on the prospect of a post-independence constitution largely because they do not want to entertain publicly the prospect of a Yes vote. However, it is likely that all parties in Scotland will develop their own constitutional agendas in the event that Scots do indeed vote for independence.

The timetable set out in both the White Paper and the Bill makes clear that there will be time for this to take place. The constitutional convention will in all probability not be established until after the Scottish parliamentary election in May 2016. Parties will no doubt run in that election with manifesto plans for the constitutional process, setting out whether or not they agree with the constitutional convention route, and stating their respective preferences in relation to constitutional content. And indeed it may well be that one or more of the parties which are currently campaigning for a No vote will in fact be in government to oversee the move towards a new constitution.

Rejecting the Westminster Model: throwing baby out with the bathwater?

It seems sensible that an independent Scotland should have a written constitution to replace the Scotland Acts of 1998 and 2012. The powers and responsibilities of the main institutions of government and of the judiciary will require to be defined. But I have two main concerns. The first is to do with process. Drafting a new constitution should involve as much engagement with the general public as possible, so that the process is genuinely popular rather than elite-driven. The interim constitution is a government-crafted device and may well shape the scope of the deliberations to be undertaken by the convention. The convention itself should, therefore, be designed very carefully if it is to be genuinely deliberative and representative.

Secondly, I am in general very sceptical of written constitutions which are highly detailed not only in setting out the institutional arrangements for the state but in prescribing a set of values, for reasons I have set out elsewhere. In the event of independence, a constitution will be needed, but why not start with a more modest document that provides for a head of state and sets out the powers of the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government, the court structure, and local government? This would then leave it up to the people to exercise their newly gained independence through their parliament, allowing them to make the decisions they want, and from time to time to change their minds about these decisions should they wish to do so in an open and flexible way. And for big decisions there is of course the referendum; if it is appropriate to use direst democracy to determine the independence question why not use it for other major decisions which Scots will make in the future?

 

Stephen Tierney is 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 theFuture of the UK and Scotland programme

This post originally appeared  on the ICON-nect  blog: http://www.iconnectblog.com.

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Donal Coffey: Accidental Entrenchment and the Scottish Independence Bill?

donalThe Scottish Government has recently published their proposed Scottish Independence Bill as part of the process directed towards ultimate Scottish independence from the United Kingdom. Katie Boyle has provided an overview of the various key provisions of the Bill in a recent blog post. In this post, I want to consider a potential argument that can be put forward on the Bill as it stands: the Bill may have inadvertently entrenched the proposed Constitution as a fundamental law.

First, it is important to establish that this would be inadvertent. The briefing notes accompanying chapter five of the Bill (pp. 59-67) make it clear that it was not the intention of the drafters that the Scottish Independence Bill would be entrenched. The relevant section is as follows:

The Scottish Government proposes that the Scottish Independence Bill and renewed Scotland Act will not contain a bespoke amending formula or hard entrenchment provision. This is because they are inherently temporary and are a staging post on the way to the permanent written constitution which would be prepared following independence. An excessively onerous amending formula would be inappropriate for interim arrangements. (at 60)

The notes argue that, if enacted, the Act would have constitutional status that requires explicit amendment or repeal. It is left open to the constitutional convention as to whether and how to entrench the constitution itself. However, the drafting of the Independence Bill itself leaves it questionable whether entrenchment may inadvertently occur due to the drafting of Article 3.

Article 3 states as follows:

(1)In Scotland, the people have the sovereign right to self-determination and to choose freely the form in which their State is to be constituted and how they are to be governed.

(2) All State power and authority accordingly derives from, and is subject to, the sovereign will of the people, and those exercising State power and authority are accountable for it to the people

(3) The sovereign will of the people is expressed in the constitution and, in accordance with the constitution and laws made under it, through the people’s elected representatives, at referendums and by other means provided by law.

(4) The sovereign will of the people is limited only by the constitution and by the obligations flowing from international agreements to which Scotland is or becomes a party on the people’s behalf, in accordance with the constitution and international law.

This Article provides that the people are the wellspring of all State power and authority; the draft refers to this as “the sovereign will of the people”. There is a subordinate, derived power which can be exercised by the people’s elected representatives (Article 3.3). However, in a problematic construction of clause (4), the ultimate power, “the sovereign will of the people”, is expressly described to be limited “by the constitution” and by international law obligations. The difficulty is as follows: “the constitution” referred to in Article 3 is that contained in part 2 the Scottish Independence Bill (Art. 1.1). Therefore, the exercise of the ultimate sovereign will of the people is subject to the terms of the Scottish Independence Bill. This, presumably, would also temper any subsequent exercise of the “sovereign will of the people”, i.e. through the constitutional convention outlined in Article 33. Therefore, the meaning of Article 3.4 is actually to entrench the Scottish Independence Bill in a manner which the drafters apparently did not intend. It seems more likely that it is the inferior power wielded by the people’s elected representatives that was intended to be subject to the limitations of Article 3.4, but this is not the natural construction of Article 3.4 as it stands.

It might appear that any deficiency in drafting under Article 3.4 would be cured by the exercise of the constituent authority of the people after the constitutional convention. However, it would further be open to question whether that subsequent exercise was a true exercise of constituent authority or would be an exercise of constituted authority under the Scottish Independence Bill, and therefore subject to any limitations therein. In this regard, the work of Dr. Joel Colón-Ríos has identified recent Columbian jurisprudence which has limited the power of the people to amend the Constitution via a referendum where this power is subject to the terms of the Constitution itself (see “Beyond Parliamentary Sovereignty and Judicial Supremacy: the Doctrine of Implicit Limits to Constitutional Reform in Latin America” (2013) Victoria University of Wellington Law Review 521 at 529-531).

It therefore appears clear that Article 3.4 may inadvertently entrench the Scottish Independence Bill in a manner which was unforeseen by its drafters. If this was not their intention, it is a relatively simple matter to insert words to make clear that it is the inferior governmental power, and not the sovereign power of the people, which is limited by the constitution. Moreover, it seems prudent to foreclose any possible judicial review on the basis of the above argument (whether it would be successful or not) simply because to do so would ensure that the path to independence, if such is the will of the Scottish people, is not subject to time-consuming and controversial actions in the courts.

 

Donal Coffey is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth

(Suggested citation: D. Coffey, ‘Accidental Entrenchment and the Scottish Independence Bill?’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (24th June 2014) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/)).

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Katie Boyle: Scotland in Transition: the Scottish Government’s Proposed Interim Constitution and the Scottish Independence Bill

KatieOn Monday 16 June 2014 the Scottish Government launched the Scottish Independence Bill: A Consultation on an Interim Constitution for Scotland at the Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law. The publication is first and foremost a consultation paper that proposes establishing an interim constitution under section 4 of the proposed Bill should a majority vote in favour of Scottish independence in the referendum on 18 September 2014. The proposed interim constitution would bridge the constitutional gap between the proposed date of Scottish independence (24 March 2016) and the adoption of a permanent written constitution. To place this within the wider proposed transitional framework, the Bill would require a number of transitional mechanisms to be established before it could be legally passed by the Scottish Parliament after the referendum and before independence day. Viewed in this context the Bill proposes that the constitution-framing exercise would operate under a three stage process:

1) The transfer of a significant number of reserved powers would be required in the intervening period post-referendum / pre-independence day in order to allow for the passage of the Bill;

2) The interim constitution Bill would be enacted pre-independence day, partly commenced pre-independence day and partly commenced on independence day (section 36) to found Scotland’s constitutional arrangements until the permanent constitution is adopted;

3) The interim constitution would be replaced by a written constitution post-independence day following the deliberation and constitution-framing exercise to be conducted by the Constitutional Convention established under an Act of the newly elected independent Scottish Parliament (section 33).

Stage one of this process would require legislative action by Westminster in order to devolve the necessary power to legislate for an interim constitution. So rather than solely focus on the content of the Bill itself, it is crucial to examine what would be required in order to ensure legality in the passing of the proposed interim constitution. A number of matters that are currently reserved would require to be devolved before independence day, such as for example, the ability to legislate to change the constitution of the United Kingdom (reserved under paragraph 1 of Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act 1998).

It is proposed that the Bill would then commence on an incremental basis with sections 1 (independence), 18 (Scottish citizenship), 20 (international organisations), 34 (continuity of laws) and 37 (short title) commencing in advance of independence day (when the Bill is granted Royal Assent). This would confer on the Scottish Parliament the power to declare independence through a resolution of the Scottish Parliament (section 1), rather than independence emanating from Westminster legislation. It would also allow (should executive competence be transferred) the Scottish Government to enter into negotiations with international organisations, such as the EU, in advance of independence day to seek to secure continuing membership and a smooth transition to an independent state (see Barber for a discussion on the logistics of an EU negotiation process). It is proposed that the remainder of the Bill would thereafter commence on independence day itself.

It is envisaged that the Bill would hold a semi-constitutional foundation whilst the permanent written constitution is being prepared by a Constitutional Convention to be established ‘as soon as possible’ by the newly elected Scottish Parliament in May 2015 (section 33). This is the second stage of transition and during this period the Bill provides the foundation of an interim constitution. However, it is important to note, although it is proposed that the Bill would form a ‘constitutional statute’ under the common law principles first developed by Lord Justice Laws in the Thodburn case – it would not be an entrenched constitution subject to special amendment procedures. Like any other constitutional statute the terms of the then enacted legislation could be amended through subsequent ordinary legislative procedure where subsequent legislation expressly repeals or amends part of the interim constitution (meaning the Bill is exempt from the doctrine of implied repeal but not exempt from expressed repeal or amendment).

The Bill would also not stand alone in forming the constitutional framework of a newly independent and transitional Scotland. The statute would be complemented by existing arrangements under an amended version of the Scotland Act 1998. Section 34 of the Bill provides for continuity of laws and the rule of law (guaranteed under section 15) would provide for the continuance of all existing legislation in force the day before independence day and also all common law judgments that relate to Scotland – until such time as judgments are overturned or legislation amended or repealed and replaced. The Scotland Act would require some significant changes – such as the repeal of Schedule 5 that lists those powers reserved to Westminster, and section 28(7) of the Act which reserves the ultimate sovereignty over both reserved and devolved matters to the UK Parliament at Westminster. This would see the incremental dismantling of the current devolved framework.

So whilst the proposed Bill is designed to serve as an interim constitution, the existing constitutional framework under the revised Scotland Act would continue to co-exist providing the technical and substantive instructions on how administrative and constitutional law in Scotland should operate. This is, of course, all dependent on the UK Parliament agreeing to transfer the necessary powers and make the necessary amendments to the Scotland Act in the intervening months between the referendum and independence day in order for the passage of the Bill to be a legal possibility.

This in and of itself poses difficulties to the eventual enactment of the Bill if the UK Parliament are opposed to transferring powers pre independence day. Although the Edinburgh Agreement (the agreement reached between the UK and Scottish Government on 12 October 2012 that governs the referendum process) contains a duty to cooperate in good faith and ‘in the best interests of the people of Scotland and the rest of the UK’, it does not impose a duty to transfer powers on an incremental or pre-independence basis should the UK Government consider this is not in the best interests of the people of Scotland, or the best interests of the people of the rest of the UK. In any event, the transfer of legislative competence through a section 30 Order and the transfer of executive competence through a section 63 Order would require affirmative approval by the UK Parliament and the Scottish Parliament before becoming law. The UK Parliament is not a party to the Edinburgh Agreement and so there may be significant barriers to ensuring the passage of such Orders. Furthermore, changes to the composition of the Parliament in the 2015 general election and a newly elected UK Government, whatever political administration that might be, may complicate matters further.

The Scottish Government could seek to enter into a second agreement with the UK Government after the referendum if the electorate vote for independence. This second agreement could act as a more wide reaching framework agreement to govern subsequent negotiations on the terms of independence – this at the very least might help smooth the first transitional stage by clarifying how the substantive terms of independence and separation might be negotiated and by identifying common principles and values in a spirit of cooperation. At this stage Scotland would not yet have reached independent statehood and this precludes the possibility of an international treaty, however, the framework agreement could reflect the language and content of an international treaty in order to add legitimacy to the process (akin to the terms of the multi-party peace agreement in Northern Ireland in 1998). The terms of an international treaty could thereafter be drawn up to be adopted on independence day, with an ad hoc internationalisation of the previous agreement, so that any matters that continue to be negotiated could be done so in a continuing spirit of cooperation. This would build upon the commitment in the Edinburgh Agreement ‘to continue 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’.

If these potential barriers in relation to the transfer of legislative and executive competence are overcome, through for example the adoption of a framework agreement, it is possible that the Scottish Parliament would be in a position to lay the Bill before the legislature in advance of independence day in order to complete stage one of the process. This comes with the caveat that this would be no easy path to secure and is wholly dependent on the UK Government and Parliament respecting the outcome of the referendum and facilitating a quick transition in terms of the transfer of competence. In this sense, it might be more beneficial to set a framework agreement in place before the referendum – so that the terms of the agreement could also cover the eventuality of a no vote providing an opportunity to clarify the road map for Scotland’s constitutional future whatever the outcome of the referendum. This is highly unlikely given the timeframe and the fact the UK Government has already made clear that it would not be appropriate to negotiate the terms independence before the referendum.

In the event of a yes vote and the above barriers being overcome, Scotland would thereafter enter stage two of the process under the proposed interim constitution. The Bill proposes transitional arrangements in relation to the Scottish constitutional framework including the proposed process to create a written constitution through the establishment of a Constitutional Convention (section 33). The outcome of the proposed Convention, a written and permanent constitution, would ultimately see Scotland entering stage three of the transitional process.

A Deliberative, Participative and Inclusive Constitutional Convention?

The final proposed stage in the transitional constitutional status of a newly independent Scotland is provided for under section 33 of the Bill. The provision for a permanent constitution confers a duty on the Scottish Parliament to establish by an Act of Parliament an independent Constitutional Convention charged with the task of drawing up a written constitution for agreement by or on behalf of the people of Scotland. The Act must provide for the membership of the Convention; the funding of and administrative support of the Convention; the time by which the Convention is to complete its task and its dissolution; the procedures and processes to be followed by the Convention; and the procedure by which the written constitution should be adopted by or on behalf of the people. Interestingly, there is no substantive provisions relating to the matters to be considered by the Convention in the Bill itself – leaving this open to the Scottish Parliament to decide post independence.

Likewise, the actual appointment of Convention members and the process of deliberation is also left open – meaning the commitment to a participative and inclusive process promised in the explanatory notes (page 44) is not underpinned by any substantive provisions on how this might be achieved. Much like the referendum process, legitimacy in the outcome of the Constitutional Convention would be engendered through legitimacy in the process itself. The proposals in Scotland’s Future (page 352) and the explanatory notes to the Bill promise to include the voices of civic society groups such as trade unions, business interests, local councils, faith groups, community groups, and extensive involvement of ordinary citizens. However, the mechanisms through which these voices would be heard in the deliberative constitution-making process are not yet clear. The Scottish Parliament would therefore be tasked with taking into consideration how best to ensure that the Constitutional Convention takes into account an array of voices, all of which may have differing and potentially competing interests, when legislating for the membership, procedures and processes to be followed by the Convention.

By way of example, one might consider how best to include minority groups in a majoritarian decision making process that might otherwise be marginalised and potentially excluded from the process – particularly in relation to vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. The Scottish Parliament, and latterly the Convention itself, would also need to consider whether there should be some form of framework from which the constitution-making process should begin – through for example embedding fundamental constitutional rights, or whether some of the provisions in the interim constitution should be retained, such as those relating to the head of state (section 9); nuclear disarmament (section 23); or the division of powers between legislature, executive and judiciary (sections 10, 11, 13 and 14).

The constitution-framing exercise ought to form a deliberative, informed, reasoned and inclusive process so as to avoid what could potentially be an exercise of elite or majoritarian decision making (see Tierney and Boyle). At the very least, it is notable that the proposed Bill ensures the Convention would operate independent of the Scottish Government and Parliament (section 33(3)(4)). Nonetheless, a great deal of consideration would require to be given to creating a deliberative framework that engenders legitimacy in the eventual outcome of the Constitutional Convention process through mechanisms ensuring substantive inclusion and participation.

Finally, the Bill proposes that the written constitution at the completion of the Convention process would not necessarily require approval by direct democracy through another constitutional referendum. The Bill leaves it open to the Scottish Parliament to decide how the written Constitution is to be agreed – either through a subsequent referendum, or through approval by Parliament on behalf of the people (section 33(3)(e)). There is a debate to be had about what role direct democracy should play in the adoption of constitutions and subsequent constitutional change and what model Scotland could adopt in this regard (see Constitutional Referendums for an analysis of these issues).

Conclusion

As was alluded to in the first paragraph, the interim constitution Bill first and foremost forms part of a consultation paper that is open to deliberation and to the submission of views rather than a Bill that is being laid before the Scottish Parliament in its current form. The publication states that the ‘purpose of the Bill and consultation paper is to facilitate as wide and open a debate on the constitution of an independent Scotland as possible’. With this in mind, it is important to remember that there is a constitution-framing exercise already underway and the consultation process provides an important opportunity to contribute to the wider discussion on potential constitutional change should the referendum result in a yes vote. Again, according to the principles of deliberative democracy, such an exercise is a welcome one in ensuring a participative process.

This will also no doubt inform and encourage UK wide reflection on constitutional arrangements – whether that be in relation to a written constitution, further devolution, membership of the EU, or a Constitutional Convention for the UK for that matter. Given that the political parties supporting Scotland’s continuing membership of the UK have now come together to promise further devolution in the event of a no vote one thing we can be certain of is that Scotland and the UK’s constitutional landscape will most likely face change in the near future whatever the referendum result on 18 September 2014.

 

Katie Boyle is a constitutional lawyer, Economic and Social Research Council Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh and Lecturer in International Human Rights at the University of Limerick.

The research for this blog forms part of a research project undertaken by Professor Stephen Tierney, ‘The Scottish Independence Referendum: A Democratic Audit’, funded by the ESRC Future of the UK and Scotland Senior Fellowship scheme. All views expressed are the author’s own.

(Suggested citation: K. Boyle, ‘Scotland in Transition: the Scottish Government’s Proposed Interim Constitution and the Scottish Independence Bill’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (21st June 2014) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/)).

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Merris Amos: Scotland, Independence, and Human Rights

Merris Amos.jpgIn its weighty tome, Scotland’s Future, the Scottish Government promises that at its heart, an independent Scotland will have “the respect, protection and promotion of equality and human rights.” Furthermore, this will not be just an empty gesture but will be “enshrined in a written constitution to bind the institutions of the state and protect individuals and communities from abuses of power.” The promise is also made that as an independent state, Scotland will live up to its international obligations on equality and human rights. Furthermore, protections already enjoyed will continue in a written constitution. These will include the rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) but other rights will also be considered for inclusion. Specifically mentioned are the rights contained in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and principles designed to “deliver greater equality and social justice.” Any new rights or future changes will be developed in “full consultation with the people of Scotland”. It is also promised that Scotland will continue to have its own human rights body.

If the intention is to encourage a “yes” vote from those basing their vote for or against Scotland’s independence on human rights protection alone, this is a very good start. Leaders of the major political parties in the rest of the UK find it difficult to mention the words “human rights” let alone make promises to improve the legal protection of human rights or explore the possibility of adding new rights to those already protected by the Human Rights Act (HRA). Officially, the most recent pronouncement was from the Commission on a Bill of Rights which reported in 2013. Unable to agree on much, a majority of the Commission concluded that there was a strong argument in favour of a UK Bill of Rights which would build on all of the UK’s obligations under the ECHR and provide no less protection than was contained in the HRA. However, a different majority concluded that socio-economic rights were not something that should be included and that the present declaration of incompatibility contained in section 4 of the HRA should be retained as “there was no desire for conferring on courts a power to strike down inconsistent Acts of Parliament.” There has been very little progress on human rights law reform since.

By contrast, whilst the details are limited, the Scottish Government’s promises about human rights would address at least three of the problems with the current state of legal protection of human rights in the UK which the Commission on a Bill of Rights failed to do. First, as the Scottish Government itself recognised, whilst Scotland’s current equality and human rights framework is strong, that framework’s future cannot be guaranteed under current constitutional arrangements. The same goes for the rest of the UK. Once campaigning gets under way for the 2015 UK general election, it is likely that the repeal of the HRA will once again be a feature of the Conservative Party’s campaign as it was for the 2010 general election. Including human rights protection in a written constitution offers much more effective protection from the political winds of change than that offered by a mere Act of Parliament. Although it is likely that politicians would continue to criticise politically unpalatable judgments, such as those concerning prisoner voting, such criticism would be unlikely to be accompanied by promises to repeal or amend the constitution, particularly if the new constitution occupied a special place in the hearts and minds of the Scottish people. The experience of other countries demonstrates that including human rights protection as a key part of a written constitution also improves knowledge of and respect for human rights law, particularly if changes to present arrangements are developed in full consultation with the people of Scotland.

Second, whilst the details are not clear, it is likely that a written constitution containing human rights protection would mean that the legislation of the new independent Scottish Parliament would be vulnerable to legal challenge in the courts were it to be incompatible with human rights law. Whilst under the Scotland Act 1998 this is the situation at present in relation to the devolved legislation of the Scottish Parliament, it is not the situation in respect of the laws of the Westminster Parliament. Under section 4 of the HRA all a court can do is issue a declaration of incompatibility and wait for government, and Parliament, to change the law with all the delay and uncertainty that this entails. And finally, given the traditionally strong commitment to social justice in Scotland and willingness to include in the written constitution rights additional to those in the ECHR such as children’s rights and principles designed to “deliver greater equality and social justice”, it is likely that by contrast to the rest of the UK, human rights protection in an independent Scotland would extend to justiciable economic, social and possibly cultural rights. As appreciated during the lengthy process towards a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, often such rights have a more concrete meaning for people than civil and political rights and can help to muster support for human rights law generally whilst providing much needed protection for vulnerable individuals in an era of growing inequality.

Involving the people of Scotland in the future of human rights law, entrenching the outcome in a written constitution to which the legislature was subject, extending protection to economic, social, cultural and other human rights and support for a strong independent human rights commission would undoubtedly place an independent Scotland in the leading position on the protection of human rights when compared to the remaining countries of the United Kingdom. Were the HRA to be repealed following the next general election, the comparison would be even starker. But before planning a move to Scotland, it is important to be realistic about what will actually be achieved in relation to human rights protection were Scotland to achieve independence.

With a limited portfolio, it is fairly simple for the present Scottish government to be positive about human rights protection. Issues which have caused consternation for politicians at Westminster, such as the detention, control and deportation of terrorist suspects, have not arisen in the Scottish legal or political system. An independent Scotland would have responsibility for all matters including immigration and national security and much more difficult human rights questions would arise. Whilst it may be resisted, there would be a strong temptation to water down promised human rights protection in the face of public perceptions that human rights law is a “villain’s charter” an “obstacle to protecting the lives of citizens” and “practically an invitation for terrorists and would-be terrorists to come to Scotland”. Such notions have been prevalent in the UK print media over the last 14 years, including Scotland. Much initial work would have to be done to essentially rebrand the idea of human rights in the minds of the public, ensure sufficient education and promotion and encourage respect for the human rights parts of the written constitution. As the experience of other states demonstrates, the budget for an “open, participative and inclusive constitutional convention” would be considerable.

A related issue is what relationship Scottish courts in an independent Scotland would have with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) when adjudicating on human rights claims. It is assumed that Scotland would be a party to the ECHR and thereby accept the right of individual petition to the ECtHR. Were the new constitution to be silent on the matter, it is also likely that Scottish judges would make full use of the jurisprudence of the ECtHR. Whilst there is considerable political mileage in the idea of a “Scottish” approach to human rights interpretation and application, which would garner respect and a margin of appreciation for Scotland before the ECtHR, again it is necessary to be realistic. It is only in a small minority of claims that there is actually room for a national approach. A recent example is the UK broadcasting ban on political advertising which was upheld by the ECtHR in Animal Defenders International v United Kingdom 2013. Other attempts to seek respect for a UK approach to human rights from the ECtHR, the blanket ban on prisoner voting for example, have not been successful.

In relation to the range of rights to be protected, it is important to appreciate that there exists a strong narrative force in the UK, and other national jurisdictions, against making economic and social rights justiciable in the same way as civil and political rights. As noted above, this was the conclusion of the Commission on a Bill of Rights and despite the promise of the Scottish government, the result of further consultation with powerful interests groups may mean that this promise is impossible to deliver. As it was for the HRA, a first step may be simply to offer protection to the rights contained in the ECHR and Protocol No.1, as noted in Rights Brought Home, the White Paper accompanying the Human Rights Bill, “ones with which the people of this country were plainly comfortable”. And finally, it is not clear from Scotland’s Future how the written constitution would limit the power of the Scottish Parliament to legislate. It is possible that human rights protection may afford Scottish judges something more than a declaration of incompatibility but less than a strike down power raising similar problems of delay and effectiveness which have bedevilled section 4 of the HRA.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, by making the protection and promotion of equality and human rights as a part of a written constitution one of the issues for consideration, the Scottish Government has set an excellent example. Should the vote be for independence, those with the power to embrace and reform human rights law in the rest of the UK should take careful note.

Merris Amos is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Law, Queen Mary, University of London.

(Suggested citation: M. Amos, ‘Scotland, Independence, and Human Rights’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (13th May 2014)  (available at  http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/).

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News: House of Lords Constitution Committee Report on Scottish Independence

The House of Lords Constitution Committee has produced a report on the consequences of a yes vote in the Scottish Referendum. The report addresses a number of the question considered in an earlier post on this blog. In particular, it examines the role of Scottish MPs and Lords in a post-referendum Parliament, and considers the constitutional mechanics of independence negotiations. The report also considers the principles under which the assets and liabilities of the United Kingdom would be divided after independence.

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Nick Barber: After the Vote: Regulating Future Independence Referendums

 Nick1In a few months time Scotland will vote on independence.  In my last post on the topic I discussed some of the consequences of a yes vote: the problems that would be raised around the currency, Scotland’s membership of the EU, and, more generally, the difficulties presented by the tight time-fame set by the Scottish Government for negotiation.  That post should have given wavering ‘yes’ voters pause for thought; the path to independence is harder and riskier than the Scottish Government’s optimistic White Paper claims.   In this post I will discuss one of the consequences of a no vote: its implications for subsequent independence referendums.  This post should, perhaps, cause wavering ‘no’ voters to reflect. The independence referendum is, or should be, a once in a generation chance to leave the Union.  It would be a mistake to assume that a second referendum will be held any time soon.

There are problems with constitutionalising a right to secession.  In a classic article,  written as the states of Eastern Europe were recasting their constitutional orders in the early 1990s, Cass Sunstein argued that constitutions should not normally incorporate a right to secede.  Sunstein argued that such rights inhibited the creation of a united, effective, state.  The constitutional possibility of secession might encourage regions to consider independence on a regular basis, and, on the other side of the equation, the remainder of the state will be aware of secession as an ever-present possibility.  As Sunstein argues, this may inhibit long-term planning: why should the state engage in projects that principally benefit the region, knowing that the region might leave at anytime?  And when the project benefits the whole state, but requires regional cooperation, how can the state be sure of this support?  More darkly, Sunstein warns there is a risk of blackmail.  The region can use a threat of secession to put unfair pressure on the remainder of the state.   Finally, as Sunstein points out – and as we have reason to know all too well – questions of secession tend to stir emotions more deeply than other political questions.  The intemperate character of debate around the issue can, in itself, harm the capacity of the state to act as a coherent unit.

Sunstein’s prescription – a denial of the right to secession – is not open to the United Kingdom, which has already recognised the right of certain of its territories to leave the Union.  The Northern Ireland Act 1998 contains a legal right for that territory to secede in some circumstances, and whilst Scotland and Wales lack such a legal right, it has been accepted, perhaps for quite sometime, that they are entitled to determine their own constitutional fate.  After the SNP gained control of the Scottish Parliament it was a matter of when, not if, a vote on independence would be held.

But whilst Sunstein’s prescription may be inappropriate, his diagnosis remains accurate.  The bare possibility of a second referendum after 2014 may have a destabilising effect on British politics for the reasons he identified.  The risk of a second referendum may cause the rest of the UK to be reluctant to adopt schemes or make decisions that benefit Scotland at the expense of the remainder of the country: why buy warships from Scottish shipyards, rather than from their English competitors, when Scotland may become a separate state at any time?  And, recalling Sunstein’s fear of blackmail, there is a risk that Scotland will use the threat of independence to exercise a disproportionate say over UK policy-making: agree with us, or we leave.  In short, the continued possibility of independence may frame political debate within in the UK in negative and corrosive terms, with Scotland’s interests understood as distinct from, and potentially in tension with, those of the rest of the UK.  There is a danger that the possibility of secession will lead to Scotland becoming a semi-detached part of the Union, always on the verge of exit.

This problem could be addressed by regulating the capacity of the Scottish Parliament to call independence referendums.  Under the current devolution settlement the Scottish Parliament is able to hold an advisory referendum on independence at any time.  Admittedly, this point is not beyond dispute:  most notably, Adam Tomkins has argued against this view, contending that the Scottish Parliament lacks this power, but, for reasons I have set out on this blog, I think it unlikely he is correct on this point.  The Scottish Parliament does, though, clearly lack the power to hold a binding referendum on independence: at present, this requires the agreement of Westminster.  The status of the 2014 referendum was secured after an agreement between the Scottish and Westminster Governments.   Whilst as a matter of law, the United Kingdom Parliament could still refuse to accept the outcome of the 2014 referendum, as a matter of political practice the Edinburgh Agreement is sufficient to render the vote binding.

Any attempt to regulate the holding of independence referendums after 2014 would, if the Sewel Convention were adhered to, require the support of both the Scottish and Westminster Parliaments.  Conferring on the Scottish Parliament the capacity to hold a binding referendum might render the concomitant regulation of that power more attractive.  The  Scotland Act 1998 could be amended to legally recognise what is an existing constitutional fact: that the Scottish people have constituent power, that they possess the capacity to create a sovereign state by seceding from the United Kingdom.  In addition to this, the Scottish Parliament could be accorded the power to call a binding referendum on independence.  The Scottish Parliament, rather than Westminster, is best placed to determine when the Scottish people wish to hold such a vote.

Coupled with the conferral of this new power on the Scottish Parliament should come limitations on its exercise, to mitigate – if not cure – the problems that the right to secession brings.  Just because the constitution accords Scotland the right to secede, it does not follow that the United Kingdom need accord the Scottish Parliament an untrammelled power to determine the procedures through which that right is exercised.  It is common for the constitution of a country – determined at the level of the state – to set the conditions for secession.  Having accorded a region the right to secede it would be wrong for the state, through the constitution, to limit the right in ways that make secession effectively impossible.  But it would be appropriate for the state to set conditions on the secession right that serve to protect the remainder of the state’s territories and the political community of the state as a whole.  With this in mind, the capacity of the Scottish Parliament to hold a referendum should be constrained in two respects.

First, there should be a constraint of the frequency of independence referendums.  They should be rare: there should be a long period of time between the 2014 referendum and the next vote.  The capacity of the Scottish Parliament to call a vote should, then, be time-limited.  The Scottish Parliament should be given the power to call, by simple majority, an independence referendum only if (say) 30 years have elapsed since the previous vote.  Making the independence vote a rare and decisive event makes it less likely that the secession right will have the destabilising consequences identified by Sunstein. The issue is taken off of the political agenda for a substantial period of time, allowing decisions to be made at the national level without being unsettled by constant doubts about Scotland’s continuing membership of the Union.

It might be objected that such a long period between votes leaves Scotland vulnerable: what if the rest of the United Kingdom embarked on a scheme so hazardous (such as resolving to leave the European Union, for example) that Scotland’s vital interests were imperilled by remaining part of the Union?  Indeed, a benefit of secession rights is that they can give smaller regions some protection against larger units.  The time-constraint on referendums should, then, be balanced by a second measure.  The Scottish Parliament should be given the power to call a referendum at anytime by super-majority: a referendum would be held if (say) two-thirds of MSPs eligible to vote supported it.  This would be a hard standard to meet, but not an impossible one; in extreme cases the Scottish Parliament could hold an independence vote before the specified time between referendums had elapsed.

In summary, my proposal is that following a ‘no’ vote the Scotland Act be amended to empower the Scottish Parliament to hold a binding referendum on independence, but only if 30 years have elapsed since the last referendum or if two-thirds of all MSPs vote for such a referendum.

There are a number of objections that might be made to this proposal.  Practical-minded people I have spoken to warn me that it is unrealistic.  They may well be right.  If independence is rejected, the United Kingdom Government and Parliament are unlikely to have much appetite to continue to debate and discuss the issue.  The SNP is unlikely to want to accept restrictions on the chance to secure a future vote – and may regard such limitations as, in themselves, constraints on a power that ought to reside in the hands of the Scottish Parliament.  Consequently, each side has incentive to let the matter drop.  But whilst constitutional ambiguity is sometimes desirable – allowing us to avoid unnecessary conflicts  – it can sometimes store up trouble for the future.  The possibility of a second referendum will ensure that, after a brief period of quiet, the question of independence will return as a live political issue. Worse still, there is a chance that it will be harder to secure agreement between Scotland and Westminster on the significance of this referendum.  Westminster might, reasonably, decline to accept the validity of a second referendum held in the near future: it might be argued that the SNP cannot keep repeating the question until they get the answer they want.  The period immediately after a ‘no’ vote is probably the best possible time to set the parameters under which the secession right should be exercised.  Leaving it unaddressed will bring significant costs.

The recent pronouncements of the future of the currency in Scotland from British politicians have generated criticism: to some this looks like bullying, threatening the people of Scotland with the loss of the pound.  Such criticism is misguided.  It is right that Scottish voters are given as much information as possible about the likely outcome of a ‘yes’ vote.  Part of that information is the negotiating stance that will be adopted by the rest of the UK when dealing with the putative Scottish state, a political entity that will become, it should be remembered, as much a foreign country as France or Germany.  But Scottish voters ought also to reflect on the consequences of a ‘no’ vote and, ideally, British politicians should also address this question.  There may well be more powers that can be devolved to the Scottish Parliament – a ‘no’ vote is not a vote against devolution – but the vote will settle the question of Scottish independence for a generation.  It will – or it should – rule the question of secession out of political debate for a long period of time, and the Scotland Act should be amended to help bring about this end.

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

Suggested citation: N. W. Barber, ‘After the  Vote: Regulating Future Independence Referendums’  U.K. Const. L. Blog (21st March 2014) (available at  http://ukconstitutionallaw.org).

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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/).

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