Tag Archives: Scottish Referendum

Alan Trench: What follows the referendum: the process of negotiating Scottish independence, or of delivering Devo More

Alan TrenchBack in May, I gave a lecture at the University of Ulster’s Belfast campus about what might follow the vote in the Scottish referendum. I’m afraid I’ve only now had the chance to tidy that up for wider reading. It’s available on the Social Science Research Network here, or can be downloaded directly HERE. The lecture as a whole is somewhat lengthy (around 10,000 words), so this post picks out the key points.

Perhaps the most important and novel part of the lecture is the second one, where I map out what would follow a Yes vote – the sort of steps needed, particularly on the rUK side to tackle the many uncertainties that will follow. This is a separate issue from that of the strengths of each party in the negotiation, discussed HERE earlier in the week.  This would call for a great deal of imaginative thinking, in the midst of a first-order constitutional crisis. In particular, it seems to me that:

  • The negotiating process needs to move with all due speed, to preserve the democratic legitimacy of both rUK as well as an independent Scotland. There is no good reason for rUK to seek to prolong the process, and plenty of reasons for it not to.
  • The 2015 UK General election presents grave problems for that – the time lost to campaigning in an election and briefing a possible incoming new government means it will be impossible to make a proper start in negotiations before June 2015, since even provisional agreements reached under the present government might lack support from the new one.
  • One option – which appears to be gaining some support, particularly among Conservatives – is to postpone the 2015 election. But the present government has already been in office for 4½ years, and has no mandate to negotiate something so important to rUK as Scottish independence.
  • A better option would therefore be to hold a general election early, before the end of 2014, so there was both certainty about the composition of the UK/rUK Government and that government had a political mandate for independence negotiations. This would need approval by a two-thirds majority in the Commons, under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.
  • Those negotiations will not be quick or straightforward – not just because of the difficulty or complexity of the issues to be considered, or how trade-offs might be made between issues, but because they are a matter for parliaments as well as governments. Parliaments will need to approve legislation giving effect to the final outcome, and in Westminster’s case also to authorise much of the necessary preparation on the Scottish side. There will need to be close co-operation between governments and their parliaments, both to ensure proper democratic control and accountability in the process and to simplify the process of approving the agreement at the end of it.
  • A special UK Parliamentary committee, probably mostly meeting in private to preserve the confidentiality of proceedings and negotiating positions, would be an important way of helping to accomplish that.
  • There would also be problems about the involvement of Scottish MPs and ministers in the independence process on the UK/rUK side. It would be contrary to the interests of the people of rUK for MPs sitting for Scottish seats to be involved in that process; as those negotiations affect first and foremost the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, only their representatives should be involved – whether in negotiating teams, Cabinet or Cabinet committees when considering independence-related matters, or when those are considered in Parliament. This is the West Lothian question on steroids.
  • The need to ensure a broad consensus of support within rUK for the agreement also means that the Opposition – whoever it may be at the time – will need to be involved in the process. In particular, figures from the Opposition should be included in the rUK negotiating team, and party leaderships kept abreast of all issues under consideration. Again, while this complicates the process of the negotiations, it will simplify the process of approving and implementing an independence agreement.

Much of this sits oddly with usual British constitutional practice. But a Yes vote would trigger extraordinary times, and a need for extraordinary measures to cope with an unprecedented and very difficult situation.

As far as a No vote is concerned, the lecture maps out the programme that was clearly being advanced by the Unionist parties in May, and advanced by the IPPR’s Devo More project: separate party policies, cross-party agreement on the key elements of that, early consideration of them following the referendum and implementation through endorsement in the 2015 election manifestoes. That process would clearly need to include the SNP as well as the pro-union parties, unless the SNP chose not to take part. Since I gave the lecture, the Scottish Conservatives have published their proposals in the form of the Strathclyde Commission report (and I have amended the text to reflect that). Subsequent developments have hardened the commitment of the parties both to the need for joint action and a clear timetable, as well as a Scottish-focussed process to agree the main features of ‘enhanced devolution’.

None of this is about simply ‘giving Scotland more powers’. It is about getting devolution right, so that it enables Scottish voters to have what they have wanted for more than a decade: extensive self-government within the Union. That will benefit other parts of the UK too, and not just by achieving a greater degree of constitutional stability. It will ensure that if Scottish taxpayers choose to spend more on devolved Scottish services, they bear the fiscal consequences of that; this would not be at the expense of taxpayers outwith Scotland.

There is, however, a clear need for that to be followed by a wider process covering the whole UK, and the best way to achieve that would be through a conference of members of the UK’s parliaments and legislatures; MPs, MSPs, AMs and MLAs. This is the idea underpinning the Strathclyde Commission’s recommendation for a ‘committee of the parliaments and assemblies’ . Through their election, these figures all clearly have a mandate and authority that other methods of selection would not give them.

Whatever happens on 18 September takes the UK into new and uncharted constitutional waters. It is important that everyone understands what is likely to follow, and what the world is likely to look like in a few months’ time.

 

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

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Mark Elliott: A lack of constitutional imagination lies at the heart of the Scottish independence debate

Mark

Opinion polls suggesting that the pro-independence campaign in Scotland may have taken a narrow lead have had an electrifying effect, causing the mainstream UK media and political establishment — both of which have been curiously disengaged from the debate so far — to sit up and take notice. The point of this post is not to make the case in favour of the Union. Rather, the point is to suggest that the nature of the debate — premised as it is on bald agreement or disagreement with independence — displays a lack of constitutional imagination.

The question lying at the heart of the independence debate appears to be an unambiguously binary one. Should Scotland be an independent country? Yes or no? But the terms upon which the debate has largely been conducted — particularly by those arguing in favour of independence — have often implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, eroded the ostensibly binary nature of the question. The obvious example is the pro-independence campaign’s insistence that an independent Scotland could and would continue to use the pound. The strategy is clearly an attempt to allay fears about independence by relying upon the relationship that — it is said — would persist between a newly independent Scotland and the United Kingdom. (I pass over, for the time being, the obvious point that while the question whether it should become independent is rightly and exclusively one for Scotland, the terms of an independent Scotland’s relationship with the United Kingdom manifestly should not and would not be settled only by Scotland.)

The controversy about currency arrangements is, however, merely a facet of a broader characteristic of the independence debate. A fundamental difficulty that has beset it since day one is that, in constitutional terms, we do not know what either a “yes” vote or a “no” vote would actually mean. Exactly how independent of the UK would an “independent” Scotland be? Conversely, what sort of Union would a post-referendum non-independent Scotland be a part of? The answers to these questions have never been clear, and nor — to the extent that they exist at all — have they remained constant. Both camps have shifted position over time. The pro-independence campaign has increasingly invoked the relationship which — it is said — would endure between an independent Scotland and the United Kingdom. Equally, however, the Better Together campaign has — particularly in recent months — placed growing emphasis upon the prospect of yet-greater autonomy for Scotland within the Union. The net result has been a degree of convergence, as independence has morphed into independence-lite, while the case for the Union has developed into a case for a (somehow) different kind of Union.

On one level, the way in which the two different camps have shifted their positions over the course of the campaign can be ascribed to nothing more than the practical political need to appeal to voters who occupy the middle ground. Viewed from a different perspective, however, the sort of convergence that has occurred during the course of the independence debate reveals something more profound about the realities of modern constitutionalism. One of those realities is that the sort of hard distinctions —independent or not independent? — that seem implicit in the type of question which voters in Scotland will answer in just under two weeks’ time are increasingly inapt. In the sort of economically, institutionally and legally interconnected modern world of which an independent Scotland would aspire to form a part, the very notion of independence is uncertain at best, anachronistic at worst. Independent of what, exactly? Not, it seems, of the United Kingdom — with which, according to pro-independence campaigners, Scotland would retain very strong connections. Nor would Scotland (when or if permitted entry) be independent of the wider community of nations that exists thanks to institutions such as NATO, the Council of Europe (and its Convention on Human Rights) and the European Union.

The fact that an independent Scotland would remain connected in these ways can be — and has been — presented as part of the case for independence, on the ground that independence need not raise the (to some) off-putting prospect of going it entirely alone. At the same time, however, this vision of a post-independence Scotland’s position in the wider world simply serves to demonstrate the elasticity — and, ultimately, intellectual emptiness — of the notion of independence. The devil is in the detail: and detail, particularly about how Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom would be calibrated, is notable by its absence.

Yet this argument cuts two ways. It can just as easily be directed against the “no” campaign once it is acknowledged that the notion of the Union, whose defence lies at the heart of that campaign, is at least as elastic as the the idea of independence. Just as independence can be conceived of in terms ranging from total isolation to far-reaching integration with British, European and international institutional arrangements, so can the Union be conceived of in an enormous range of radically different ways. The nature of the Union that joins together the four constituent nations of the United Kingdom is not cast in stone: a fact that is borne out both by constitutional history and by constitutional theory. The relationship between the centre and the home nations, as well as between the home nations themselves, has been significantly re-conceived during the life of the Union, including, perhaps most notably, in the recent past through the introduction and subsequently deepening of devolution itself. As far as constitutional theory is concerned, one of the most-vaunted strengths (as it is seen by some) of the United Kingdom’s unwritten constitution is its flexibility: its capacity to adapt itself to changing political, cultural and institutional circumstances. It follows that choosing to reject or retain “the Union” is a choice that cannot be meaningfully be made by reference to any abstract or fixed notion of what the Union is, since no such notion exists. Rather, it is a choice that must, if it is to be a meaningful one, be informed by a sense of what shape the Union would take were Scotland to remain within it.

Here, then, we find what might be regarded as the most fundamental of all the difficulties with the independence debate. It presupposes that “independence” and “Union” are binary concepts that bear a fixed meaning, rendering each antagonistic to the other. The reality, however, is that neither term need — or does — bear such a meaning. Each instead represents a very wide spectrum of constitutional possibilities, the breadth of which is such as not merely to erode the distinction between the two concepts but to result in overlap. (Would, for example, an independent Scotland bound within the terms of a currency union enjoy greater “independence” than a non-independent Scotland endowed with extensive fiscal autonomy?)

So far, the main Westminster parties’ ability to reimagine the Union appears to be confined largely to the possibility of more-extensive devolution. This much was trailed by the main United Kingdom political parties in June; most recently, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown — apparently with the support of all three of the main pro-Union parties — has indicated that a “no” vote will result in the conferral of additional powers upon the Scottish Parliament by means of an expedited legislative process in Westminster. This, however, discloses only a very limited amount of constitutional imagination. In particular, it does not follow that devolution, or devolution in its current form, should necessarily form the constitutional architecture within which the future of the Union is considered. Properly understood, the question that now faces the United Kingdom is not concerned only with the amount of authority that is located outside London, but with the nature of that authority, the constitutional security of the institutions that wield it, and the constitutional framework within which these issues fall to be determined. The most obvious alternative to the present system is federalism, but here, too, we must be careful. Like devolution and independence, federalism is a broad church, and it is certainly no part of my argument that (say) a German or US-style federal model should be proposed in the United Kingdom as a panicked response to the now-real possibility of a “yes” vote in Scotland. The Scottish referendum — whatever the result — may well prompt fundamental rethinking about the nature of the United Kingdom’s constitution, but its shape must be determined reflectively and inclusively, not on the back of an envelope as the clock ticks. With less than two weeks until decision day, now is not, therefore, the time to begin confronting the technical minutiae of the sort of constitutional future to which the United Kingdom — whether or not shorn of Scotland — might aspire.

The point, rather, is a simpler one. It is that the decision which will fall to be made in Scotland on 18 September is one that is too complex to be distilled into a binary choice between “yes” and “no”: “independence” or “Union”? With only a little imagination, it is readily apparent that the geometry of the constitutional arrangements that might describe Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom are not confined to (on the one hand) the status quo and (on the other hand) independence. A “yes” vote on 18 September will most likely represent an irrevocable choice, foreclosing upon the possibility further exploring the part that Scotland might play in a post-referendum Union. A “no” vote will almost certainly cause that possibility to be explored —and explored, it is to be hoped, in a way that is at least open to possibilities more imaginative than merely the devolution of additional competence to Edinburgh.

Such options would have to be considered on a pan-United Kingdom basis, not only in the interests of fairness but also of pragmatism: substantial revision to the United Kingdom constitution without broad support across the Union would almost certainly stoke resentment, hastening the disintegration of the Union rather than making its survival more likely. But after 300 years, it is surely worth pausing to consider what might lie between the parameters presently represented by independence and the status quo. An understandable response to any newly discovered enthusiasm for United Kingdom-wide constitution reform is that is might be nothing less than a cynical ploy designed to ward off a constitutional crisis. So it might. But it would be mistaken to conflate impetus and consequence. Few countries end up contemplating, far less enacting, significant constitutional reform unless events provoke a “constitutional moment” that triggers such action. A “yes” vote would undeniably make 18 September 2014 Scotland’s constitutional moment. But a “no” vote might just make it the United Kingdom’s.

Mark Elliott is a Reader in Public Law at the University of Cambridge. This post was first published on his blog, Public Law for Everyone. Mark can be found on Twitter as @DrMarkElliott.

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Neil Walker: The Uncelebrated Union

NeilLast week’s first televised debate of the referendum campaign revealed few surprises of tone or content, even if the outcome disappointed pro-independence hopes of a momentum-building surge in support. As expected, Alex Salmond concentrated on the core message of political self-determination, and the prospect of the new Scotland embracing a model of social and economic solidarity that London is increasingly unable or unwilling to deliver. With equal predictability, Alistair Darling for ‘Better Together’ insisted upon the precariousness of the pro-independence position on currency, placing this at the suggestive centre of a wider narrative contrasting the vulnerability of a fledgling Scottish polity to the reassuring solidity of the existing British state with its broader institutional shoulders and deeper pockets. It was not, truth be told, a good night for the ‘ vision thing’. Salmond seemed somewhat less energised and less sure-footed than usual in his portrayal of the promised land, perhaps inhibited by the artificial format of the TV duel and by the strong pre-debate expectations that his quick wits and populist style would win the day hands-down. For his part, Darling, true to form, simply chose not to let his political imagination off the leash. He stuck to a narrow brief, defending the status quo, or at least a soft focus version of it, and concentrating his fire on the supposed gaps and shortcomings of the ‘Yes’ case.

For Better Together, as has so often been the case over 30 months of campaigning, what was not said was more interesting and more revealing than what was. One particularly deafening silence, much commented on in the immediate aftermath, surrounded Darling’s refusal, despite many repeated invitations from his opponent, to offer an explicit endorsement of the proposition that Scotland could be successful as an independent country. In an episode that rapidly descended into Paxmanesque political pantomime, and which hardly flattered either party, Darling’s discomfort was that of someone torn between a desire not to offer a succulent soundbite to the ‘Yes’ campaign (‘Darling makes case for independence’), and an anxiety not to appear dismissive of the potential of his fellow Scots.

There was, however, another telling silence, less apparent, quite unremarked in post-debate commentary, but ultimately of deeper significance. On more than one occasion, Darling referred to Scotland as ‘part of something larger’. Yet when he did so, he omitted to give that larger entity a name. This might seem trivial. After all, everyone knows where and what he was talking about –   who the ‘we’ are who, in his view, are and ought to remain Better Together. And so, perhaps, we should read nothing more into his silence than a (reasonable) assumption of the self-evidence of his object of desire. Yet that would be too simple an explanation. For Darling’s reticence can also be seen as a mark of reluctance, even of unease. It betrays a sense that the state we are in is best left understated, so to speak; and that it might be to the symbolic disadvantage of the ‘No’ campaign to apply a label to the entity whose preservation they seek.

An appreciation of why this is the case takes us to the heart of the question of Scotland’s constitutional future, not just over the vital final weeks of the referendum contest but also in the years to come.

What’s in a name?

The awkwardness begins with the sheer range of candidate labels. Was Darling talking about – or rather not talking about – Britain, or the United Kingdom, or perhaps ‘The Union’? As Aileen McHarg reminds us in a recent post, these are not interchangeable terms, and the uncertain movement between them is a symptom of Better Together’s indecision over whether and how to present a holistic case for the defence. The terms may refer to ( more or less) the same geographical unit, but each speaks in a somewhat different register. Crudely, we may think of Britain as the cultural entity, the UK as the institutional entity, and the Union as the abstract idea – the constitutional key to what these islands hold in sovereign common. Clearly, those different registers – cultural, institutional and constitutional – overlap, and they also closely interact, but they do nevertheless reveal different levels of understanding of our wider political community. And, as we shall see, Better Together is not entirely comfortable operating at any of these three levels.

Take first, Britain. The long decline of Britishness as a dominant national identity from the 19th century high water mark of Protestantism and empire is well-known. As recently as 1970, asked to choose a single nationality as many as 39% of Scots identified as British. By 2013 that figure had fallen to 23%. The significance of this cultural fact in framing the referendum debate Is often overlooked just because it is nowadays so well established. But it can hardly be overestimated. As the Edinburgh Agreement confirms, it is Scotland’s referendum to decide, not Britain’s, and the arguments on both sides – from Better Together every bit as much as the nationalists – always appeal first and foremost, and often enough solely, to the Scottish rather than to the British national interest in making their case.

Yet that is not to say that a cultural sense of Britishness is irrelevant to the debate. Only around a quarter of contemporary Scots assert an exclusively Scottish identity, the rest admitting at least to a residual sense of British identity, and more than one third regularly claiming their British identity to be as strong if not stronger than their Scottish identity.   Migratory patterns further complicate cultural identity. Over 800000 people born in Scotland live elsewhere in the UK, mostly in England; and according to the Scottish Government’s recently published draft interim constitution, those members of that sizeable diaspora who presently qualify as British citizens (i.e., nearly all) would automatically join the vast majority of the 5.3 million Scottish residents as citizens of a newly independent Scotland, including the half million Scottish residents who were born in England (discussed by Nick Barber and Jo Shaw). Ties of family, friendship and work link many people across the four nations well beyond this considerable population of internal migrants, and together with shared language and heritage, and a wide array of cultural institutions from the BBC to the British Lions, and from the royal family to the Trades Union movement, feed a resiliently self-reinforcing sense of affinity and common sentiment.

So while it is a dominant identity for relatively few, being British remains an integral part of the cultural self-understanding of most participants in the referendum. It follows that even if it is emphatically the Scottish rather than the British national interest that is at stake in this referendum, some attention must be paid to British values, and to the value of Britishness, as part and parcel of any attractive conception of that Scottish national interest. No-one understands this better than Alex Salmond, and that is why he has been so ready to extol and to endorse the enduring virtues of British culture to audiences both North and South of the border. It is also why he has been at pains to offer reassurance about Scotland’s post-independence commitment to many aspects of ‘social union’, not least the 400 year old monarchical union. For Better Together, however, despite such nationalist concessions, this remains a delicate subject. Indeed, the generosity of the endorsement of a residual Britishness by Scottish nationalists, in particular by the nationalist leadership, can even serve to highlight Better Together’s own difficulty in painting a more robust picture and a more confident sense of the place of British culture in Scottish political life, and so further expose the tension between culture and polity in any vision of a continuing British state.

What of the United Kingdom? Surely as we move from the cultural software to the institutions that supply the hardware of the modern state the ‘No’ campaign find themselves on firmer ground. For here we are talking about the deeply embedded and closely enmeshed political and economic infrastructure of a 300 year old state; about its common monetary and fiscal framework and financial institutions, its NHS and wider system of social welfare, its dense network of common regulatory agencies, its armed forces, its global diplomatic presence, and its membership of key international institutions from the EU to the UN Security Council, and from NATO to the G8 and G20. And certainly, the kernel of the campaign case for the status quo, as underlined by the formidable sweep and detail of the Scotland Analysis papers of HM Government and by the tendency   of   Better Together spokespersons to disaggregate the case for the UK into its many particular benefits, has been here; in the advantages that accrue from belonging to something tried and tested, bigger and more resourceful, and with a long established international position and global reputational capital.

There is much in all of this, and it may well provide the decisive platform for a ‘No’ vote on September 18th. Yet there is an obvious snag here too. For the stress upon results, what is sometimes called ‘output legitimacy’, leaves the ‘No’ side exposed to counterclaim, and also threatens to cast its overall approach in an unflattering light. To begin with, if it is the record of the British state which supplies the case for the defence, then it is bound to be the entire record, and, of course, there is much both in the UK’s imperial past and in its long post-imperial decline and repositioning that can be singled out for criticism by those who are inclined to emphasise the downside; and once debate is joined at this level, there can be no copper-bottomed, position-independent way of demonstrating that one side’s assessment of the balance sheet is superior to the other’s.

In addition, a results-based assessment has a necessarily contingent quality. Success depends upon performance and performance depends upon the presence and maintenance of favourable   preconditions. On the one hand, this leaves the defenders of the British state vulnerable to arguments that these conditions have been eroded and circumstances have changed; that the UK   as an integrated project in some sense or other has been ‘broken’ or is on the verge of becoming so, whether because of declining financial and diplomatic muscle in a world still suffering the shock waves of the financial crisis. or a congealed neo-liberal consensus at the centre, or the prospect of a UKIP-fuelled marginalisation or exit from Europe. On the other hand, that same preoccupation with successful outputs, and with the conditions of success, also feeds what we might call the tendency towards counterfactual negativism in Better Together’s portrayal of the Yes case. Whether on currency Union, or membership of the EU, or future defence contracts, the No campaign is drawn by its results-orientation to scrutinise closely the basis of the nationalist boast that they could achieve equivalent or better outcomes in another possible world. And while close scrutiny of hypothetical claims is understandable, and perfectly reasonable, it does also help fertilise the view, enthusiastically cultivated by the other side, that the No camp is motivated by narrowly instrumental considerations; that Project Fear and Mission Balance Sheet are its only and small-minded answers to the expansively regenerative politics of nationalism.

Which brings us third, and finally, to the idea of Union. Can this idea – this most abstract rendition of the state we are in – supply the deep constitutional code that holds the cultural pieces of Britain together, and which makes the institutional framework of the UK and its attendant benefits more than the sum of its parts? In some respects, the idea of Union offers an unlikely candidate for this task. As Colin Kidd has ably demonstrated (in his Union and Unionisms ), the history of unionism in these islands is not a singular one, but a complex tapestry of sometimes divergent, sometimes interfluent themes. In particular, the banal conception of Union and unionism – especially well-known in Scotland and Ireland – as shorthand for the single, consolidated and historically both largely centralised and imperially expansive British state, is only one part of the story. The other main version of unionism has been generally less prominent over the modern era, yet it is both etymologically persuasive and more consonant with the everyday meaning of the term. It begins with a much earlier pre-1707 Scottish impulse to address relations with the large English neighbour on the basis of presumptive equality, continues through various iterations over the centuries of legal Union, and has acquired renewed resonance in very recent times. On this alternative view, unionism is counterposed not to nationalism and to the independence of the component parts, but to an idea of English empire over the territory of the British Isles and beyond. The two versions of unionism, then, do have in common the preservation of the British state, but while in the first version the state prevails by denying or disdaining nationalist sympathies, in the second and more progressive version it prospers by accommodating and in significant measure embracing such sympathies.

Arguably, it is the second version of unionism that supplies a more persuasive, if still only partial, reading of recent British constitutional history. Unarguably, it is the second version that must be deepened and amplified if the Union is to prevail in the longer term. The distinctive components of this progressive unionism are both structural and ethical. In structural terms, the Union offers a very special model of constitutional design, incorporating a rare idea of constitutional authority. The Union state is understood – at least ideally if not always strictly as a matter of historical record – as a conditional compact between sub-state national authorities, each of which retains or (in the less idealised version) rescues and regains some core of constituent power – some claim of national right – to revisit the terms and the very existence of Union. The Union state, then, emerges and matures through a process of evolution and according to the shifting balance of constitutional forces, rather the unfolding of a single master project. Equally, its form always remains provisional, open to further development rather than a matter of finality. And its shape is inevitably asymmetrical, reflecting the different composition and aspirations of its national parts – what Michael Keating (in Plurinational Democracy) calls its ‘plurinational’ rather than its ‘multinational’ pedigree – rather than the careful symmetry of the units we find in classical federalism. Last, and most fundamentally, the Union state, progressively understood, must draw a distinction between constituent power and constituted authority – or between (plural) political sovereignty and (singular) legal sovereignty. The coherence of the polity requires that a particular settlement of legal authority hold firm at any particular time and cannot lightly be overturned, but the need to respect the equality of the national parts also requires – whether or not as part of a formal constitutional amendment procedure – that this settlement remain open to revision in a way that allows and respects the renewable expression of popular sovereignty (normally indicated through referenda) by these national parts.

The ethical dimension of a progressive unionism is perhaps even more under-articulated, but it has recently been given thoughtful articulation by Gordon Brown. Brown insists that it is a necessary rather than a contingent feature of the British state, as well as a distinct advantage over an independent Scotland, that it be a ‘Union of social justice.’ That is to say, there should be and should remain an ‘insurance policy’ between the national parts enabling, through common fiscal instruments, whatever redistribution is necessary to guarantee common standards of welfare across the UK as a whole wherever and whenever resources and risks are otherwise unequally divided. Clearly, this inclusive commitment to a basic threshold of social justice requires some measure of common investment in values such as egalitarianism, community spirit and social responsibility – social democratic standards that Brown reminds us are, by any historical measure, as much English as they are Scottish, Welsh or Irish – but it also requires this to be matched by the deep political tolerance of diversity necessary to give effect to the structural dimension of Union. That is to say, a progressive unionism must find a way of reconciling solidarity with respect for different forms of cultural life and their political expression. And in so doing it must recognise and manage the following difficulty; that each cluster of values is both the condition of and a constraint upon the other. Solidarity is required for a settled order of political pluralism to prevail, but the more pluralistic – the more diversely accommodating – the polity, the greater the challenge there is to generate such solidarity. Equally, without robust recognition of national diversity in today’s Britain, the trust and respect necessary to sustain cross-national solidarity will not be forthcoming, yet the political arrangements necessary to deliver the solidarity dividend themselves set limits on how far political diversity can be accommodated.

The case for the Union state as an answer, however complex, to the internal pluralism of the British state is strengthened by it suitability to the wider political environment. The Union idea may represent a departure from the constitutional orthodoxy of the modern state, but its more decentred and negotiated understanding of sovereignty and its provisional and iterative approach to constitutional agreement reflects and adapts to recent developments in geopolitical circumstances. For the broader constitutional picture in a globalising age is not simply of a two-level power system, but of a multipolar pattern. Constitutional authority in and for the Union today is in fact balanced precariously not just amongst London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, but also between these sites and Dublin, Brussels ( EU political institutions), Luxembourg (EU Court of Justice) and Strasbourg ( European Court of Human Rights). Legal jurisdiction in this densely interconnected environment, therefore, comes not in organically compact blocks but is salami-sliced across a range of political settings. In turn, that multipolar authority system has encouraged a more general underlying   condition of   ‘constitutional unsettlement’ (see N. Walker, “Our Constitutional Unsettlement” (2014) Public Law 529). With so many constitutional sites co-implicated, and with no undisputed ‘authority of authorities’ to plan or co-ordinate their interaction, the course of constitutional change becomes unpredictable, with the resolution of each arena of negotiation and disputation heavily dependent upon similarly unresolved questions in other arenas. So, as we have seen, uncertainty about Britain’s future in the EU, and to a lesser extent the ECHR, and similar doubts about an independent Scotland’s European prospects, have become staples of the referendum debate, just as, reciprocally, the referendum result will significantly affect the stakes and influence constitutional (re)negotiation in all these other areas.

All in all, the idea of the Union state, especially under the flexible arrangement of the unwritten constitution, seems a good fit for this fluid scenario. In particular, with its   recognition of the inevitably of power-sharing, and in its emphasis upon the open-ended political treatment rather than the definitive legal resolution of diverse constitutional claims, the a Union state can speak a language of relative rather than absolute authority, of shifting rathe than final settlement, that is appropriate to our time and place.

The Union’s new vows

There remains, of course, a gap between such a progressive unionism in theory and the Union in practice. The Union today remains largely uncelebrated, as double-edged a source of comfort and inspiration for the defenders of the state we are in as are the ideas of Britain and the United Kingdom. In part this is because of the legacy of traditional unionism – the banal, knee-jerk version that rejects rather than encourages accommodation of political and cultural nationalism below the state. In part, too, it is because the difficult work of rethinking the Union in a more rounded fashion requires a kind of cross-party engagement and reasoned, inclusive dialogue that has not found an easy place in the referendum campaign. Significant progress has been made. The Scotland Act 2012, negotiated between Westminster and an SNP-led Holyrood, is gradually rolling out more fiscal powers and new fields of competence to the Scottish Parliament, while the three main pro-Union parties have all published plans for further constitutional reform, and have agreed to develop these under a joint platform post-referendum. But much of this activity has been reactive, a second agenda behind the main priority of fighting the referendum in more critical and defensive mode,

Yet if the new progressive unionism outlined above is to be taken seriously as a long-term solution to Scotland’s constitutional question, then it must do more. The structural and ethical questions it asks offer new opportunities to the political imagination, but they also pose significant challenges. More work is needed not just to convince sceptical nationalists that their aspirations can be accommodated, but also to commit effectively to the procedures of ‘joined up’ constitutional reform the Union needs if it is to integrate concern for the Scottish question and for the sub-state national question more generally, with all the other aspects of the multipolar constitution.

The task   of achieving and sustaining a long-term commitment among Unionsits to progressive unionism should not be underestimated. Nor should anyone understate the difficulty of selling to a wider audience such a project, whose core message is a rejection of the false clarity of some versions both of nationalism and of traditional unionism, in a manner that is itself sufficiently clear and appealing. One thing is certain, however. If the British/UK/Union state to to succeed in promoting a grown-up and sustainable constitutional model for the 21st century, it has to get used to declaring its own name and aim in public.

 

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

 

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

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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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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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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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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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