Tag Archives: Scottish Independence

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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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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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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Neil Walker on Scotland: Hijacking the Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nick Barber: After the Vote

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

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

So the key dates are:

18th September 2014: Referendum

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

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

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

 5th May 2016: Elections to Scottish Parliament

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

Negotiations with the UK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Negotiations with the European Union

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

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

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

 Article 48:

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

Ordinary revision procedure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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Aileen McHarg: A Tale of Two Constitutions?

aileenLast week, I spent two days in London, accompanying a group of Constitutional Law students on a trip to the Westminster Parliament, the Supreme Court and the Scotland Office.  The trip was part of a final year research project shadowing the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s Inquiry into The Constitutional Role of the Judiciary if There Were a Codified Constitution.  The students had extraordinarily privileged access to ministers, MPs and peers, to Supreme Court justices, and to leading academics and members of the Scots and English Bars.  It was a hugely valuable and enjoyable experience for students and their teachers alike.

However, what struck me very forcibly while I was in London was the disconnect between constitutional debates at Westminster and those in which we are currently engaged in Scotland.  Whilst the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee was discussing the implications of a written constitution which most people to whom we spoke regarded as wholly hypothetical, here in Scotland we are facing the real prospect of constitutional codification in the event of a yes vote in next year’s referendum.  Given the state of the opinion polls, it may be unlikely that this will in fact happen.  But the important point is that, unlike for the UK, there are conceivable circumstances in which Scotland could soon have written constitution.  Nevertheless, the Scottish situation appears to have played no part in the Committee’s inquiry, nor does there seem to be much awareness of the fact that the judiciary already plays a strong constitutional role in relation to the Scottish Parliament and other devolved legislatures.

We see a similar constitutional disconnect when it comes to the European Union.  While all the talk in Scotland is of whether we could remain a member of the EU in the event of independence, Westminster is currently debating a Bill (The European Union (Referendum) Bill 2013-14) which will pave the way for a referendum on whether the UK should remain a member.

Of course, the independence referendum and its implications have not been wholly ignored at Westminster.  The Scottish Affairs Committee has published a steady stream of reports   on what it insists in calling ‘separation’ for Scotland, and on 5 December the House of Lords held a short debate on the Scottish Government’s independence White Paper, in which various speakers called for a full debate and/or the establishment of a joint Parliamentary committee to examine the White Paper fully.

The tone of these interventions from Westminster is, however, almost unremittingly hostile to independence.  For most Westminster politicians, the idea of independence for Scotland would appear to be so preposterous that only a fraud or a fool could support it.  For instance, in a report published shortly before the White Paper, the (notoriously partisan) Scottish Affairs Committee came close to accusing the Scottish Government of lying: “The Committee believes that the present Scottish administration, in relation to separation, is strongly motivated to present a selective and biased account of the facts.” (at para 11)  Similarly, in the recent House of Lords debate, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean gleefully related the fact that the title of the White Paper – Scotland’s Future –is an anagram of “fraudulent costs” (at col 397).  For Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, the White Paper was “650 pages of continuous fiction” (at col 400), while for Lord Steel of Aikwood it was a “bogus prospectus of a bogus independence” (at col 401).  The only note of dissent in the debate came from Lord Purvis of Tweed who, while not in favour of independence, nevertheless considered that the UK was in need of reform.

It is easy to dismiss this kind of stuff as just good political knockabout.  And it might also be argued that, if the independence debate is not taken more seriously at Westminster, it is the fault of the Scottish Government for insisting that it is a matter for the people of Scotland alone (indeed, even at Westminster, few non-Scots voices are heard).  Yet, how could it be otherwise?  While independence for Scotland undeniably has implications for the United Kingdom as a whole, and the terms of independence must assuredly be negotiated, as a matter of principle the right of a minority to seek self-determination cannot be dependent on the will of the majority.  More pragmatically, the tone of the Westminster debates indicates there would be no possibility of the independence case receiving a fair hearing.

In fact, the tone of the debate at Westminster is not merely distasteful but, by failing to do justice to the seriousness of the debate in Scotland, or to make the positive case for the union that undoubtedly exists (see, eg, Jim Gallagher’s speech  at Glasgow University in October), it seems to me to pose a threat to the continuation of the UK – perhaps not in the short term, but taking a longer view.  The degree of constitutional disconnect between Scotland and the rest of the UK, as represented by Westminster, contributes to a growing sense that these are two separate polities with different constitutional trajectories.  While voters in Scotland may well conclude that, for now, remaining in the union is the less risky of the two constitutional futures on offer, this looks less like being a ringing endorsement of the union than a pragmatic – and therefore contingent – calculation.

I may, of course, be wrong.  Once the referendum is over and if (when?) the no side prevails, these constitutional trajectories may reconverge in a mutual commitment to a reconfigured union.  For instance, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has called for  a constitutional convention to be set up after the referendum to consider the relationship between the union and its constituent parts.   Gordon Brown has also recently advocated  the adoption of a written constitution which would guarantee the powers of the Scottish Parliament. There is no reason in principle why such a constitutional settlement could not accommodate a diversity of constitutional visions, both institutional and substantive.  Equally, it could accommodate multiple polities, where people have multiple political identities and owe multiple political allegiances, so long as there is mutual commitment to the union and mutual toleration of diversity.

It is, however, precisely that mutual commitment and toleration that is in question here.  The latest British Social Attitudes Survey showed that, in 2012, while some 65% of those living in Scotland had some form of dual Scottish and British identity, if forced to choose between them, 69% opted for a Scottish identity, while only 20% chose a British identity – the latter figure having been in long-term decline since 1979 when it stood at 40%.  In this context, it is highly problematic that Westminster politicians prefer to disparage Scots’ aspirations for greater autonomy than to consider in a positive way how these might be accommodated.

In such an atmosphere of weak commitment to the union and intolerance of diversity, the prospects for a UK-wide constitutional settlement appear wholly unrealistic – more likely further to expose rather than to resolve the deep constitutional divisions between the constituent parts of the UK.  The hostility to the idea of a UK Bill of Rights from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland provides a foretaste of what would be likely to occur (Commission on a Bill of Rights, A UK Bill of Rights: the Choice Before Us, ch 9.  Much more probable is some further piecemeal adjustment of Scotland’s governance arrangements, which leaves their asymmetries under-theorised and their underlying tensions intact, if not more pronounced.  By failing to ask the fundamental questions about the relationship between the UK and its constituent parts, the union may be able to muddle through for a while longer.  However, unless and until these questions are satisfactorily resolved, Scotland’s place in the union will continue to be uncertain.

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

This post originally appeared on the Scottish Constitutional Futures Blog, and is reposted here with thanks.

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Stephen Tierney: The Scottish Constitution After Independence

stierneyAccording to the Scottish Government White Paper issued this week, Scotland’s Future, an independent Scotland will have a new written constitution (this repeats the commitment contained in the Scottish Government’s earlier White Paper of March). The intention is to replace Westminster parliamentary supremacy with the ‘sovereignty of the people of Scotland’ since, the Government claims, popular sovereignty has historically been ‘the central principle in the Scottish constitutional tradition.’ While this latter claim may be questionable, the commitment to a written constitution does promise a significant constitutional break with the Westminster tradition and a new constitutional culture for Scotland.

In this blog I will briefly discuss three matters:

    • When will the proposed constitution be drafted and promulgated?
    • What will it contain?
    • How will it be drafted?

When will Scotland have a new constitution?: The short answer is, we don’t know exactly. The task of drafting a new constitution will not commence until after the Scottish Parliament elections scheduled for 5 May 2016, some six weeks after Independence Day, set for 24 March. The White Paper does not offer a view as to how long the drafting process is likely to take and therefore we have no provisional date for the eventual promulgation of a new constitution.

What will it contain?: There is something of a tension between the substantive constitutional proposals put forward in the White Paper and the process by which it will be drafted.

The Scottish Government offers a fairly extensive list of what it thinks the constitution should contain, and a number of these provisions are key to its vision for independence. For example:

    • equality of opportunity and entitlement to live free of discrimination and 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
    • 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
    • a ban on nuclear weapons being based in Scotland
    • controls on the use of military force and a role for an independent Scottish Parliament in approving and monitoring its use
    • the existence and status of local government
    • rights in relation to healthcare, welfare and pensions
    • children’s rights
    • rights concerning other social and economic matters, such as the right to education and a Youth Guarantee on employment, education or training

Another proposal is that Scotland would remain a constitutional monarchy ‘for as long as the people of Scotland wish us to be so’. In relation to a number of these proposed rights, such as the opportunity of education, training or employment and rights to welfare support and health care, there is no commitment that these would be legally enforceable by courts but rather the more vague suggestion that they will be ‘questions of social justice at the forefront of the work of Scotland’s Parliament, government and public institutions.’

But in any case, since the Government does not propose to draft the constitution itself, each of these is merely a proposal for consideration. As we turn to the proposed process by which the constitution will be drafted we find that there is no guarantee that any of these commitments will in fact find their way into a new constitution.

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’. But how can it be so sure? There is no guarantee the SNP will win the 2016 elections and another party or parties forming the government at that time may have different views about this.

The Scottish Government seeks to deal with this by way of some form of constitutional guarantee or entrenchment: ‘The constitutional platform, along with the refreshed Scotland Act, will be the founding legislation of an  independent Scotland and will not be subject to significant alteration pending the preparation of a permanent constitution by the constitutional convention’. It is stated in the White Paper that, during the transitional stage between the referendum and Independence Day on 24 March, legislation will be passed placing a duty on the Scottish Parliament elected in 2016 to establish a constitutional convention. It is not clear by whom this legislation will be passed although it does seem that the goal is either for concurrent legislation of the UK and Scottish Parliaments or for the Westminster Parliament to transfer power to the Scottish Parliament for this purpose. Even so, this raises an interesting question as to whether the 2016 Parliament would be bound by such legislation. There would of course be no written constitution in place to restrict its powers. Would it be bound by the sovereignty of Westminster? Surely not, as the newly elected Parliament of an independent country. This issue is worthy of more detailed consideration in due course and important lessons may well be found from comparative cases.

Assuming that the Scottish Parliament does assume the role as convener of a constitutional convention in 2016, what will this convention look like? Perhaps not surprisingly at this stage the White Paper offers little in the way of detail. But all the same important questions remain to be asked. We are told that the convention will be ‘open, participative and inclusive’ and that the new constitution ‘should be designed by the people of Scotland, for the people of Scotland’. But is the proposed convention likely to be a genuinely popular process?

In one passage the White Paper states: ‘International best practice and the practical experience of other countries and territories should be considered and taken into account in advance of the determination of the process for the constitutional convention. In the last decade, citizen-led assemblies and constitutional conventions have been convened in British Columbia (2004), the Netherlands (2006), Ontario (2007) and Iceland (2010). Since 2012, Ireland has been holding a citizen-led constitutional convention to review various constitutional issues.’ From a number of these examples it is clear that citizens can be engaged directly and in meaningful ways in drafting important constitutional provisions. But is this what the White Paper proposes? In fact this passage is juxtaposed with the suggestion that the constitutional convention ‘will ensure a participative and inclusive process where the people of Scotland, as well as politicians, civic society organisations, business interests, trade unions, local authorities and others, will have a direct role in shaping the constitution.’

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, like the Scottish Constitutional Convention from 1989-1995? Will in fact the new constitution be drafted by elites – politicians, civic society organisations, business interests, trade unions and local authorities? If so, is this satisfactory? After all, of these groups only politicians are elected by the citizens of Scotland. To whom are the other organisations accountable and in what ways? Who would select members of these groups to sit on the convention, on what basis, and with what degree of decision-making power would they be vested? The reference to ‘civic society organisations’ introduces a risk that pressure groups with fixed agendas and well-oiled activism machinery could hijack the process, arguing persuasively for the entrenchment in the new constitution of their own particular priorities, priorities which may not have the support of a plurality of citizens.

Such an approach to constitutional drafting runs counter to some of the other examples cited in the White Paper. The Citizens’ Assemblies in British Columbia and Ontario, for example, were composed of citizens selected randomly from the electoral role. This was a direct attempt to take constitutional decision-making out of the hands of elites, be they politicians or members of the fabled ‘civil society’.

Another question is: what power will such a convention, whether popular or elite, have? The White Paper says it will ‘prepare’ the constitution. Does that mean it will have the authority to present a final version of the constitution for ratification? Or would its role be advisory only, subject to change by the Scottish Parliament?

It seems that the convention is intended to have real determining power. That the Scottish  Government can only ‘propose [certain matters] for consideration’ by the constitutional convention suggests that the convention will have control over the inclusion or exclusion of all of the Government’s goals outlined above, including the personality of the head of state. However, there seems to be one exception here. According to the White Paper the convention will itself be limited in its remit by at least one substantive precondition: ‘Key equality and human rights principles, including the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), would be embedded in the written constitution.’ This seems to be a non-negotiable commitment which the convention could not override. In other words, the convention will not be able to give effect to the ECHR in a way comparable to sections 3 and 4 of the Human Rights Act 1998, leaving the last word to the Scottish Parliament, a power which Westminster currently enjoys. There is also the suggestion that legislation during the transition period will give the ECHR the same legal force for reserved matters as it already has for devolved matters. Both these transitional arrangements and the constitutional pre-commitment on the ECHR in turn make the supremacy of judges over the new Scottish Parliament in the human rights area another de facto pre-commitment. Of course it may be that a constitutional convention or citizens’ assembly would come to the view that this is good for Scotland, but surely that should be left to this process to determine?

Finally, how would the constitution be promulgated? Would it simply need the ratification of the Scottish Parliament, or would there be a referendum? The White Paper does not say, but given the growth in referendums within our constitutional practice it seems inconceivable that such a momentous constitutional development, intended to declare the sovereignty of the Scottish people, could take place without the express authorship of the people expressed in a referendum.

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. I am grateful to Katie Boyle for research assistance in writing this blog.

Suggested citation: S.Tierney, ‘The Scottish Constitution After Independence ’  (2nd December 2013) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org).

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