Donal Coffey: Accidental Entrenchment and the Scottish Independence Bill?

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

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

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

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

Article 3 states as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Donal Coffey is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth

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