Tag Archives: Scottish Referendum

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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Stephen Tierney: The Scottish Constitution After Independence

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

In this blog I will briefly discuss three matters:

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

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

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

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

    • equality of opportunity and entitlement to live free of discrimination and prejudice
    • entitlement to public services and to a standard of living that, as a minimum, secures dignity and self-respect and provides the opportunity for people to realise their full potential both as individuals and as members of wider society
    • protection of the environment and the sustainable use of Scotland’s natural resources to embed Scotland’s commitment to sustainable development and tackling climate change
    • a ban on nuclear weapons being based in Scotland
    • controls on the use of military force and a role for an independent Scottish Parliament in approving and monitoring its use
    • the existence and status of local government
    • rights in relation to healthcare, welfare and pensions
    • children’s rights
    • rights concerning other social and economic matters, such as the right to education and a Youth Guarantee on employment, education or training

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

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

Drafting the Constitution: A Scottish Constitutional Convention? The White Paper provides that, following the elections of May 2016, a constitutional convention will be established to ‘prepare the written constitution’. But how can it be so sure? There is no guarantee the SNP will win the 2016 elections and another party or parties forming the government at that time may have different views about this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Tierney is Professor of Constitutional Theory at the University of Edinburgh and Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law.  He is currently ESRC Senior Research Fellow under the Future of the UK and Scotland programme. I am grateful to Katie Boyle for research assistance in writing this blog.

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

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Neil Walker: The Receding Tape

NeilAnd so the countdown begins. But the countdown to what? Twelve months from now we should know the result of the referendum, but just how significant a marker will that be on Scotland’s constitutional journey?

One popular view – for many less a reasoned view than a deep-rooted assumption – maintains that the referendum will be decisive and conclusive of Scotland’s future constitutional shape and status. The contemporary history of the Scottish national debate began with Winnie Ewing’s by-election success in Hamilton in 1967, continued through the abortive devolution referendum of 1979, and reached a new pitch with the successful plebiscite of 1998 and the election of the new Scottish Parliament in 1999. According to the conventional narrative, this long Scottish constitutional ‘moment’ is now drawing to an end, the independence referendum scheduled for September 2014 its final act. And despite some early mutterings from the side-lines about the inclusion of a third ‘devo-max’ option on the ballot paper, that final act  will consist of a straight choice between ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ‘out’ or ‘in’.

But why should we conclude that the availability of a  straight choice to stay or leave – the first such choice offered the Scottish people in over three centuries of Union, will settle matters once and for all? There are at least three arguments supporting this position. The first has to do with the vagaries of constitutional history. As we were reminded by the Political Studies Association’s recent decision to honour Cameron and Salmond in recognition of the two Ministers’   diplomatic achievement in signing the Edinburgh Agreement, the referendum was hard won. It took 40 years of political momentum-building, the platform and profile  of the Scottish Parliament, some unlikely  and unanticipated electoral arithmetic at the 2011 Scottish elections, the flexibility  of Britain’s unwritten constitution, a gradual yet  unprecedented groundswell  of democratic opinion in  favour of exercising the national ‘right to decide’, and a strategic calculation on both political sides that there would be no  obviously better time in the foreseeable future to hold a ballot,  to bring us to the point where a constitutionally unimpeachable referendum could be delivered.  With the clock now ticking down it is easy and tempting to think that there is something natural and inevitable about this final act, but the combination of circumstances that has brought us to this point is actually highly contingent, and unlikely to be repeated any time soon.

The second reason why the referendum is widely viewed as a cue for closure has to do with political culture. It is almost inconceivable that a ‘yes’ vote would be reversed, but a clear ‘no’ vote, too, would likely blight the prospects of a re-run for a generation or longer. Arguably ever since Winnie Ewing ‘reconvened’ the Scottish Parliament in 1999, and certainly since the first minority SNP administration of 2007, Scottish politics has been in a state of high constitutional alert.  The referendum itself has provided an all-consuming focus since early 2012, with every political act and deed from then until now, and doubtless from now on until our date with destiny next year, carefully weighed and dissected for its constitutional content or implications. If, as is undoubtedly true, there are already signs of constitutional fatigue in the political parties, in the media, in civil society and on the streets a year ahead of the vote, then we can only imagine how things will feel after another 365 days of increasingly intense engagement and polarised debate. More generally, 2014 feels like the end of a political era. A generation of Scottish politicians who cut their teeth on the devolution battles of the 1970s and who were fully formed by the class and nation-polarising politics of the Thatcher years now supply many of the senior players in the referendum drama. For them, this is undoubtedly the endgame. It is the destination towards which their political career has long been heading.  Whatever the result next year, it will be the last time many of the key actors will muster for constitutional battle.

A third reason for believing we are headed towards a constitutional denouement next year is a basic one of principle. Even in an unwritten constitution like ours, constitutional decisions are ‘second-order’ political decisions. That is to say, they are decisions about how to take other decisions.  They decide ‘who’ should decide ‘what’ and ‘how’. They provide the foundations without which ‘first-order’ programme politics on matters such as the economy, jobs, welfare, the environment and defence are not possible and without which our everyday legal rules and institutions are not viable. Like all foundations, they require to be reasonably secure. They have to be seen to be  legitimate, as broadly accepted and as beyond challenge except in special circumstances and in accordance with occasional and extraordinary procedures of contestation over the basic terms of political life As such an extraordinary procedure, the referendum cannot be allowed to become  a ‘neverendum’, everyone is agreed.  It has to be a ‘ once in a lifetime’ or a ‘once in a generation ‘ event – to quote the public pronouncements of the Scottish Secretary and the First Minister respectively to mark today’s pre-anniversary – not just because the opportunity might not arise again, and not only because of the exhaustion of a political culture, but also because normal political life might otherwise become unsustainable.

These arguments have much to commend them. And as the comments of the Scottish Secretary and the First Minister suggest, they have been taken on board by both sides. No doubt, moreover, these views will be expressed with ever greater stridency in the months ahead, as both Better Together and Yes Scotland seek to impress upon us the historical seriousness of what is at stake in the referendum and the importance of voting the right way. No doubt, too, once the nationalists publish their White Paper later this autumn setting out in detail what they understand the terms of independence to be, this clarity of principle will begin to be matched by a more transparent sense of the detailed implications.   Independence will cease to be an abstract and free-floating idea. It will instead begin to look like a substantive blueprint. And this will serve to reinforce a sense of the debate as a binary choice, with all outstanding questions on matter such as monetary union, EU membership, NATO membership and welfare citizenship either folded into the binary choice or postponed to another day. In other words, as the event draws nearer the ‘politics of the event’ will inevitably take over. The event will be nothing if not eventful, and its anticipation will bring with it its own powerful sense of dramatic closure.

Yet there is another side to this story, one that receives less attention but which demands some modification of the above picture. In the first place, we simply cannot assume that the decisive referendum will produce a decisive result. Most polls suggest a lead of 10-15% for Better Together, with around one in five still undecided. Not only does that leave the final outcome uncertain, it also raises the very real prospect of a close result, or at least one in which the losing side polls more than 35-40% of the vote. In these circumstances, the defeated side is not simply going to go away and lick its wounds. Instead, we should expect two things. First, alongside the main win-lose campaign, over the next year there will be shadow, spin-doctored campaign over the significance of defeat. At least some nationalists, not to mention the two out of five voters in the recent ICM poll who say they would vote No but would like the Scottish Parliament to become primarily responsible for taxation and welfare benefits in Scotland, will seek to interpret a narrow or respectable defeat as a mandate to insist that the Unionist parties come good on their promise to take further devolution seriously. Inevitably, this will open up new battle lines over how much further devolution is enough, over what constitutional process is required to deliver this, and over what constitutional options remain in the wings in the event of failure to build a winning consensus around the new proposal.

Equally, however, a narrow Yes vote would leave all sorts of constitutional questions unresolved. Much has been made of the tight timetable for constitutional changeover envisaged by the Scottish Government in their White Paper on Scotland’s Future. The plan is to have an early post-vote set of agreements in place between Edinburgh and London with a view, first, to providing  Edinburgh with  a ‘constitutional platform’ to act with much of the authority of an  independent state in the transitional period and, secondly,  to securing a final timetable for the negotiation and conclusion other agreements that will form part of a final independence settlement as early as March 2016. Outstanding questions for that final settlement will include the  division of financial and other assets and liabilities such as military bases and overseas assets, the transfer to Edinburgh of political authority over institutions previously controlled from London, and the content of the cooperative arrangements that the peoples of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland would continue to share – presumably  from matters as mundane as the issue of driving licenses to those as consequential as currency union and the future of a common welfare system. At the same time, Edinburgh would be in negotiation with the European Union and many other international organisations over the terms of new or continuing membership, all the time bearing in mind that the Scottish government should be careful not to over-commit itself since, under its own commitment, the mature constitutional form and purpose of the new Scotland should await the deliberations of a post-independence constitutional convention. Obviously, there is much scope in such a complex and ambitious timetable for the UK government of whatever political colour, complete with a fresh general election mandate in 2015, to be more or less obstructive or co-operative, more or less generous in its understanding of how it must deliver the terms and consequences of Scottish independence. And undoubtedly, its attitude would in some measure be influenced by the outcome of the referendum vote and the strength of the mandate for independence delivered.

My purpose in outlining these possibilities, however, is not simply to indicate that everything will not be done and dusted next September, but to point to a wider sense of constitutional open-endedness. Today, in a nutshell, we live in a world where independence is not what it used to be. While the state remains the focus of political organisation, it is now merely first among equals. In place of a universal and uniform template of sovereign statehood, we have a highly differentiated mosaic of legal and political capacities. In place of an idea of internal sovereignty as comprehensive and monopolistic, authority is now typically partial and distributed amongst various political sites and levels – state, sub-state, regional and global. And in place of mutual exclusivity as the default condition of external sovereignty, we have overlap, interlock and mutual interference and dependence. This picture of complex interdependence is perhaps nowhere more vivid than in Europe. The prospect of Scottish independence, like the reality of UK independence, has to be viewed against a backdrop of the existence of the EU as a  supranational  economic polity of 28 states, the broader current of the Council of Europe as a standard bearer in human rights, the growing influence of the United Nations in peace and security, powerful global regimes in areas as diverse as climate change, nuclear non-proliferation and international trade, and a strong constitutional tradition of federalism and quasi-federalism  in states as diverse as Spain, Belgium, Germany and, of course, the United Kingdom  itself.

Many of the uncertainties which will attend the implementation of the referendum decision, and, indeed, that are affecting the very terms on which independence is sought and fought over during the campaign, arise precisely from this set of factors. EU membership is clearly one, with the continuing uncertainty over Scotland’s pathway to membership, but also over whether a Conservative-led Britain would stay in, and if so on what terms. The nature of a Scottish currency is another, whether part of a common area with sterling or resituated inside the Eurozone. Defence, is another still, with membership of NATO and the retention of a nuclear capacity a key fault-line of debate. Internal security, too, is an area where public goods are increasingly transnationally located; hence the controversy over an independent Scotland’s relationship to the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice in the EU and to the Schengen zone.  In these and many other areas, the choice is not between freedom and dependence, but a complex algorithm involving a multi-level trade-off between autonomy of voice in smaller units and the pooling of influence in larger units. What is more, these sorts of instrumental considerations are also reflected at the level of identity politics. When commentators say that the Scottish independence debate will not be won or lost at the level of cultural identification they speak a fundamental truth. The majority of us have mixed identities – a fact that the nationalists do well to respect with their endorsement of ‘Englishness’ and ‘Britishness’ as cultural categories with which they wish to engage. This both reflects and reinforces a sense that our constitutional and political status is not written indelibly on the cultural landscape but is highly and variably influenced at the margins by more concrete questions of costs and benefits.

All of this speaks, in the longer term, to a more fluid picture. However hard the race is run over the next year, and however concentrated the runners remain on the finishing line, all will not be won or lost on September 18th 2014, or indeed in the months and years immediately following that. If we try to stand back from the fray, we see instead a longer struggle, and a constantly receding finishing tape. For in a multi-part Europe and complexly interdependent world, the balance of interest and identities is such that it is difficult to conceive of any long-term scenario in which the various parts of the mosaic co-articulate in a settled matter.

This is not to say that our referendum is anything other than the political event of its generation. It is that event, and it should be treated as such. And the necessary virtue of constitutional foundations does, I repeat, demand as much security of our second-order rules as we can manage to achieve and to sustain. Yet we should not mistake any of this for constitutional finality. The lesson of the post-war globalizing world is that constitutional events are rarely conclusive and never self-contained, but feed into an on-going process of complex multi-sourced influence. And this is never more true than when we are concerned with the constitutional politics of sub-state identity, as the local example (still strangely neglected in many referendum discussions) of Britain and Ireland so vividly illustrates.  The one thing we can be certain about when we have finished counting the votes a year from now, therefore, is that the constitutional future will still look far from certain.

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

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

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