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If Scottish voters chose independence in the referendum in September, the SNP confirmed on 16 June that a written constitution for Scotland would be drawn up. Where does that leave the rest of the UK? In an endeavour to consider what Scottish independence would mean for the rUK, this post considers Lord Bingham’s accounts of the proper relationship between the Rule of Law and Parliamentary Sovereignty, and, drawing on his concern about an imbalance within Parliament, argues that if Scottish were to secede, this would further unbalance the rUK’s constitutional order.
Lord Bingham, the Rule of Law and Parliamentary Sovereignty
In 2007, Lord Bingham set out his perspective on the relationship between the rule of law and parliamentary sovereignty in a Commemoration Oration at Kings. Much of the speech was subsequently reproduced in 2010 in Chapter 12 of his book, but for one significant amendment, which I will come to below. Bingham argued that fundamental rights must be incorporated into any proper account of the rule of law, and having set out the rights contained in the ECHR, which are “as good a check list as any,” he paused to wonder that “It is hard to understand how this very basic and practice catalogue of rights has come to be portrayed to the public as some ill-conceived, European-inspired, affront to the commonsensical conduct of government.” For Bingham, rights are not enough; at the heart of the rule of law is democracy, and the ability of a citizen to have a say in the laws by which they are bound.
Lord Bingham then turned to parliamentary sovereignty and dismissed arguments suggesting there were legal limits on Parliament’s ability to constitutionally legislate howsoever it wished. Where legislation which interfered with fundamental rights was clear and unambiguous, the courts have no power to annul or modify such enactments. Where courts do have such power, it exists by operation of Acts of Parliament, and if Parliament told them to do so, courts would stop interfering. He reserved particular ire for arguments based on common law fundamental rights – whether founded in obiter remarks by Sir Edward Coke in 1610 or Lord Steyn in 2005 – concluding that “The British people have not repelled the extraneous power of the papacy in spiritual matters and the pretensions of royal power in temporal in order to subject themselves to the unchallengeable rulings of unelected judges.”
However, this stirring paean to a sovereign British Parliament left Lord Bingham with the problem of the protection of fundamental rights. He was not persuaded by the argument that in practice, Parliament will not interfere with fundamental rights, indeed it was not hard for him to envisage such interference. Instead, checks and balances within the concept of Parliamentary Sovereignty hold the key, and traditionally, the rule of law was protected by the existence of 3 powerful independent players in the Crown, the Lords and the Commons. In this context, the contemporary “vice at the heart of our constitutional system” is the overweening unrestricted power of whoever is in a majority in the House of Commons. Such a party can effectively act as it wishes, including passing legislation which interferes with the rule of law, and Lord Bingham argues that this serious problem, once squarely confronted, can surely be resolved by “the political genius of the British people.”
Crucially, the speech at Kings does not prescribe or even suggest what such a solution might look like. The tenor of the lecture, grounded in respect and admiration of the UK’s constitutional traditions, points towards a political solution to the tension between Parliament and the rule of law; maintaining a Parliament capable of legislating in any way it wished, but fixing the malaise by resolving the imbalance in the constituent parts of the sovereign Parliament; shackling the House of Commons, rather than the sovereign Parliament.
By 2010, this argument had changed (as I discuss below), but in relation to Scottish independence, there are two aspects of Bingham’s analysis which are important: (1) whether the Union with Scotland limited Parliament’s law making powers, and 2) how Scottish independence might affect the already unbalanced constitution.
Act of Union with Scotland & Devolution
In relation to devolution, Lord Bingham entirely dismissed any argument that Parliament had lost the power to legislate for Scotland (or Wales or NI). He maintained that as with the HRA and the EU, Parliament had curtailed its own power by express authority, and could revoke that power, at least in theory. However, the only chink which Bingham partially conceded in the armour of an all-powerful sovereign Parliament related to the question of Scotland. Bingham said:
It has been suggested, with some judicial support, that the principle of parliamentary sovereignty did not obtain in Scotland before 1707 and that the Union with Scotland Act 1706 cannot itself be amended or abrogated since it gave effect to the Treaty of Union in which certain provisions were agreed to be and were described in the Act as unalterable. The merits of this argument are far from clear. It is hard to see how the pre-1707 Scottish Parliament could have done anything more fundamental than abolish itself, and it is hard to accept that the Westminster Parliament could not modify the Act of Union if there were a clear majority in favour of doing so. But if, which I doubt, there is an exception here to the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, it is a very limited exception born of the peculiar circumstances pertaining to the union with Scotland and throws no doubt on the general applicability of the principle.
If Scotland votes yes to independence, we will shortly find out if Lord Bingham is correct, and political reality suggests his doubts are valid. The recent House of Lords Constitution Committee report on constitutional implications of the referendum concludes that a, relatively short, Act of Parliament would be capable of recognising independence for Scotland and the end of the UK’s legislative competence over Scotland. Clearly, If Scotland votes yes, and the UK Parliament passes legislation amending the Acts of Union, whether or not it existed before, this one possible exception cannot survive. However, this argument for a limited UK Parliament has been primarily limited to Scottish jurists and academics, as Baroness Hale acknowledged in Jackson v. AG  UKHL 56, at para 159, stating “The concept of Parliamentary sovereignty which has been fundamental to the constitution of England and Wales since the 17th century (I appreciate that Scotland may have taken a different view) means that Parliament can do anything.” A resolution of the Scottish question will consequently have limited impact on arguments about sovereignty in the rUK.
Similarly, arguments over devolution’s role in undermining the classic theory of a sovereign Parliament (dismissed by Lord Bingham, and argued by Gavin Little in Scotland and Parliamentary Sovereignty (2004) 24(4) Legal Studies 540) will become outdated if Scotland votes yes to independence. For critics of Bingham’s approach, it may make little difference, as other putative substantive limits on Parliament remain and judges will continue to engage in constitutional analysis (see for example, M. Elliott U.K. Const. L. Blog (23rd January 2014) and Vernon Bogdanor Imprisoned by a Doctrine 32(1) OJLS 179). Thus Scottish independence will not definitively settle the question of legal limits to Parliament’s power either way, but as I argue below, it will have an impact on Parliament itself.
An Unbalanced Constitution
Lord Bingham’s 2007 resolution of the tension between a sovereign Parliament and fundamental rights under the rule of law was to turn to a critique of Parliament. In his account, there are no permissible legally enforceable limits to Parliament’s power, but the existence of checks and balances within a sovereign democratic Parliament would prevent express interference with rights. As such he proposes a Madison-style approach to avoiding majoritarianism, emphasising productive tensions within the legislative branch of government.
Alison Young’s post on this blog on 17th February 2014 argued that debate over whether judges or Parliament are supreme misses the point. Instead constitutional pluralism is evidenced by courts and Parliament checking each other’s excesses, with both asserting sovereignty in different circumstances, and neither able to finally demonstrate supremacy. The argument suggests that constitutional strength comes from the tension between institutions and their ability to exert restraint on each other.
Combining these two accounts suggests that intra-institutional checks and balances are important, and constitutional plurality is protected by tensions, both between constitutional institutions and within those institutions. Taking Bingham’s argument one step further, and focussing on Parliament in particular, productive tensions within the House of Commons, ensuring effective scrutiny of legislation and restricting a Government by requiring it to take different perspectives into account, is part of what ensures legitimacy and authority – and protects rights – in the UK’s constitutional order.
Concern about an imbalance within Parliament is not a recent development – Lord Bingham quotes a Victorian Lord Chief Justice with approval:
The constitution has lodged the sacred deposit of sovereign authority in a chest locked by three different keys, confided to the custody of three different trustees … One of them is now at length, after ages of struggle, effectually prevented from acting alone; but another of the two is said to enjoy the privilege of striking off the other two locks, when, for any purpose of its own, it wishes to lay hands on the treasure.
What difference will the independence of Scotland make to this debate? It is instructive to compare mid-Victorian Britain to a future rUK to consider this question. The criticism of an over-powerful House of Commons was made in a context in which the Monarch had been prevented from acting alone, but the House of Lords retained the power to veto, and in which party discipline (and consequent executive power over both Houses) was much weaker. Powerful local government, championed by J. Toulmin Smith and exemplified by the activities of Joseph Chamberlain in Birmingham, provided a political counterweight to Westminster, and economic power was split between London, established regional centres like Manchester and Glasgow, and newly developing industrial hubs like Middlesbrough, Gladstone’s “infant Hercules.”
Many of these political and economic balances are either gone or are dramatically denuded; with London, the House of Commons and the government within Parliament now far more dominant. Other restricting factors have emerged. The devolved institutions are one example, and while other limiting factors could be identified – some might point to the impact of social media and more transparent government, while stronger English regional voices may be emerging, see for example the launch of the North East Party on 26 May this year, – it is clear that the secession of Scotland would have an impact on the political checks and balances within the Commons itself.
Firstly, this is because the removal of Scottish MPs will result in a concurrent increase in the proportion of MPs voting with the government as part of the ‘payroll’ vote. Around 140 members (95 paid, and an estimated 45 unpaid Parliamentary Private Secretaries) are obliged by convention to vote with the government. The 95 members figure is fixed as an absolute number in primary legislation (while the number of PPS’ is not included and fluctuates). The result following Scottish independence – if no amendment is made to the payroll vote – will be that almost a quarter of the House of Commons will not generally be permitted to exercise an independent judgment on legislative matters. Such an increase may not have a dramatic impact on the Commons by itself (the current figure is approximately 22%), but is part of a long term trend of an increase in the ‘payroll’ vote which has already been subjected to fierce criticism (see the Public Administration Select Committee report “Too Many Ministers?” 9th Report, Session 2009-10).
Furthermore, as Keating has argued, Scottish MPs have traditionally operated on a regionally distinctive basis (See Michael J. Keating Parliamentary Behaviour as a Test of Scottish Integration into the United Kingdom, Legislative Studies Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Aug., 1978), pp. 409-430). He showed (albeit pre-devolution) that the involvement of the majority of Scottish MPs in UK-wide politics was primarily aimed at seeking Scottish advantages. It could be argued therefore that removal of Scottish MPs would have little impact on a rUK, however, Keating shows disproportionately strong involvement by Scottish MPs on UK-wide Bills on economic affairs, in particular agricultural and fisheries (now devolved) and trade and industry (which is not devolved). Keating also argues that UK-wide legislation has been affected by Scottish members acting in a regionally distinctive way, illustrating this with the example of a failed attempt to legalise homosexuality across the UK in 1965 (subsequently applied to England and Wales only). Thus a Scottish MP arguing for the (perceived) best interests of Scotland affects the rUK, either through pushing UK-wide policies which are (perceived to be) best for Scotland, or through raising an argument for Scottish exceptionalism, with resulting negotiation, debate and scrutiny of proposed policies.
In a more recent paper, Keating and Cairney have shown that in a political culture moving towards a political class dominated by university educated middle class professionals, Scottish MPs were traditionally more diverse, “conforming more closely to the class stereotypes” (See Michael J. Keating and Paul Cairney, A New Elite? Politicians and Civil Servants in Scotland after Devolution Parliamentary Affairs (January 2006) 59 (1): 43-59). Although the upper class/public school/military representatives have subsequently disappeared from Scottish politics, Scottish MPs remain more likely to be from working class backgrounds than their English and Welsh counterparts.
Thus regionally distinctive behaviour by Scottish MPs has had implications for legislation affecting the whole of the UK, and the removal of Scottish members will have an homogenising effect on the Commons post-independence, as well as removing one political party in the shape of the SNP entirely. Furthermore, the removal of Scottish devolution would also remove an inter-UK test of subsidiary; a hurdle which demanded attention when any policy was considered or legislation introduced.
Potential Scottish independence can be put into a context in which the UK might conceivably leave the EU and repeal the HRA. Many of the arguments for these steps appeal to a sense in which Parliament has lost its democratic sovereign right to govern. Their appeal is to a Diceyean Britain in which Parliament is supreme. However, in Dicey’s late-Victorian Britain, significant checks on majority rule remained; formally in the shape of a still powerful Lords and far more interventionist Monarch; politically in a UK with far more powerful economic and political regional traditions; and theoretically, with powerful arguments opposing an unlimited Parliament built on the Acts of Union.
Checks and balances remain part of the UK’s constitutional order, but a result of Scottish membership of the UK will be a reduction in the potential restrictions on a majority party in the House of Commons. If intra-institutional plurality is a source of legitimacy and authority, this reduction in plurality in the Commons undermines Parliament itself. Did Lord Bingham predict this? His later (2010) formulation of the way to resolve the tension between Parliament’s sovereignty and the rule of law was to tentatively propose a written constitution. Perhaps he had given up on the political genius of the British people in the interim, or perhaps he had higher hopes of us than we have recently been able to evidence.
Edward Kirton-Darling is a doctoral candidate in socio-legal studies at the University of Kent.
(Suggested citation: E. Kirton-Darling, ‘Missing: political genius. If found, please return to the British People, care of Palace of Westminster SW1A’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (26th June 2014) (available at https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/)).