Cameron may regret this penalty shoot-out

The SNP’s long game to independence has been up ended by the Prime Minister

David Cameron has hugely raised the stakes by announcing that he wants to hold a binding referendum on Scottish independence. By proposing that the timing should be brought forward and that Scottish voters be offered a straight choice between staying in or leaving the UK, he has transformed the long game being played by the SNP into a penalty shoot-out. Whether his intervention is in the interest of the country remains to be tested.

The SNP’s strategy has been a gradualist one, to build momentum slowly for independence and to hold the referendum at a time of its choosing, probably in 2014. This strategy was in part forced on it by the limited powers of Holyrood, which cannot declare Scottish independence: only Westminster can do that.

So the farthest Holyrood can go is to hold an advisory referendum, which would ask voters to authorise Scottish ministers to begin negotiations. In its 2007 White Paper the SNP proposed the following question: “The Scottish government should negotiate a settlement with the Government of the UK so that Scotland becomes an independent state.”

If the Scots vote “yes”, negotiations would begin on issues great and small, such as how to divide the national debt and North Sea oil revenues, nuclear bases on the Clyde and the sharing of defence capabilities, and Scotland’s membership of the EU. (Most international lawyers say that Scotland would have to reapply.) The division of Czechoslovakia in 1992 required 30 treaties and 12,000 legal agreements.

Once the negotiations had concluded and the terms had been approved by the two Parliaments, the next stage would be a further Scotland Act, whereby Westminster granted independence to Scotland on the agreed terms. We argued in Scottish Independence: A Practical Guide that this stage should be preceded by a second referendum, in which Scottish voters confirmed that they wanted independence on these terms.

However, the SNP has never accepted the need for a second referendum, stating that one is enough to give “sufficient clarity and confidence that the people wish Scotland to become an independent state”. With or without a second referendum, this is a leisurely timetable in which the Scottish government can gradually test the appetite for independence and then negotiate with the UK Government. The final vote and independence legislation would not happen until after 2015-16.

Mr Cameron has transformed that, by offering a decisive referendum in the next 18 months. He may want to achieve a similar effect to Canada’s Clarity Act 2000, which requires a clear answer to a clear question in any future secession referendum by Quebec. The Act specifies that a multi-option referendum is not allowed because it will confuse things. But it does not seek to impose a timetable.

The UK government might have been expected to let the Scottish Government make the running in the expectation that its advisory referendum would be defeated. But Mr Cameron has dramatically turned the tables. Now, however, the SNP might in turn decide to sit on its hands, decline the coalition’s offer and reserve the option to hold an advisory referendum in slower time. There are good democratic and deliberative reasons it could offer for doing so.

Mr Cameron’s new strategy is high- risk, for three reasons. First, the Scots risk being invited to make a hugely important decision on the basis of inadequate information. Second, there is nothing that Alex Salmond likes better than a political fight and while for him this is the only game in town, for Mr Cameron there are many other competing ones, from the eurozone to Iran. Third, Mr Cameron’s resolve may not be shared by his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats.

But this is more than a game between two heavyweights. It is a battle for the future of the UK. What matters in the end is that the people whose future depends on it are given the time, clarity and facts to reach a wise and well-informed decision.

Professor Robert Hazell is director of the Constitution Unit at University College London

Article from the Times 10.01.12

Events you might be interested in…

***PLEASE NOTE THESE EVENTS ARE NOT ORGANISED BY THE CONSTITUTION UNIT. FOLLOW THE LINKS FOR FURTHER DETAILS***

Inside Story: How the Coalition WorksProf Robert Hazell
Prof Robert Hazell & Dr Ben Yong

Date: Thursday 24 November, 5.00pm
Venue: Room 106, Roberts Building, Torrington Place, WC1E 7JE

Robert Hazell and Ben Yong have been conducting a 12 month research project,funded by the Nuffield Foundation, into how the coalition government works.

They have interviewed over 140 ministers, officials, advisers and parliamentarians. They are now writing up their findings in a book, to be published in the New Year. In this talk they will present their main findings; discuss the difficulties of this kind of qualitative research; and ask why political science has so little to say about how coalitions work in practice.

Further information: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/spp/seminars

Jack StrawBritain & Europe
Prof Jack Straw MP

Date: Tuesday 6 December, 6.00pm
Venue: Anatomy JZ Young Lecture Theatre, UCL

Jack Straw is Visiting Professor, UCL Political Science and MP for Blackburn. He has held several senior Cabinet positions, including Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Justice Secretary

His inaugural lecture will address the theme of ‘Britain and Europe’. Sir Stephen Wall will act as discussant and Prof Robert Hazell will chair.

More information and online booking: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/public-policy/events/Jack_Straw/index

Mark Harper: the Quiet Reformer

Interview with Sam Macrory, House Magazine

With constitutional reform generally more a Lib Dem than Tory pursuit, the Conservative minister overseeing it finds himself at the coalface of coalition politics, hears Sam Macrory.

‘Nick Clegg’s babysitter’. As job descriptions go – and that one came direct from a Conservative MP – it’s neither glamorous nor appetising, but nor is it entirely inaccurate. For when Mark Harper was asked to work alongside the Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister and steer through a series of controversial reforms to the constitution, he took on the challenge of convincing hostile colleagues on the merits of both a referendum on voting reform and a radical makeover of the House of Lords.

But while Clegg’s grand plans made headlines, with limited attention Harper has also managed to take Lib Dems with him in agreeing to slash the number of parliamentary constituencies by 50, as well as passing radical legislation to ensure fixed term Parliaments.

“Mark Harper has played his hand brilliantly. He has been completely loyal to the coalition and Nick Clegg, and steered through the Commons measures which were deeply unpopular with his Conservative colleagues, without appearing to be a Lib Dem stooge”, says constitutional expert Robert Hazell. “He has also quietly pushed ahead the Conservative constitutional reform agenda, and at the end of this Parliament it seems likely that more Conservative reforms will have been implemented than Lib Dem ones’.

The more unforgiving parliamentary observer might suggest that Harper’s success is due to his unshowy, rather workmanlike style, but others admire the calm way in which he removes the sting from potentially toxic subjects. Or perhaps, as Hazell has argued, the Conservative Party are closet constitutional reformers.

“That’s interesting. We don’t talk about it as much or have it as a separate strand of policy thinking,” Harper suggests, from his sizeable, if spartan, Cabinet Office quarters. “We never really put it in a box called constitutional reform, but whether that’s to do with the makeup of different parties, I don’t know.”

The Lib Dem presence has certainly, raised the profile of constitutional reform, however, which Harper credits to “the fact that the deputy prime minister has overall responsibility and it is all stacked in one place”.

Read the full article on epolitix.com

Changes to the rules of succession are not all plain sailing

The announcement at the Commonwealth conference in Perth of changes to the rules of succession suggested it was a done deal.  David Cameron has the agreement of the heads of government of the other countries of which the Queen is head of state (the realms).  But all the realms now have to change their laws, in a process which will take years.

It has been a longstanding aim of British governments to end the discrimination in the laws of succession.  11 private member’s bills have been introduced into Parliament to reform the Act of Settlement.  Successive governments have supported the change in principle, but have said that only the government could legislate; because only the government could negotiate with the other realms.  But getting all the realms signed up seemed daunting.

Gordon Brown went to the Commonwealth conference in 2009 with the same objective as David Cameron, but failed.  Since then there has been a lot of work behind the scenes to get the other 15 realms on board.  The tide of goodwill towards the monarchy following the royal wedding in 2011 and the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012 provides the perfect window of opportunity to make the change.

The fanfare of David Cameron’s announcement is intended to give maximum momentum to a project which is not all plain sailing.  The UK can give a lead, but cannot legislate for the other 15 realms.  In Australia the six states claim a separate relationship with the Crown, and the change may require their separate consent.  In Canada the federal government will certainly have to gain the consent of the provinces, including Quebec.  In both countries it will revive the republican issue.

Questions will also be asked about why the discrimination against Roman Catholics is only to be partially removed.  The prohibition on the Monarch being a Catholic will remain. Even if it were removed, no Catholic could satisfy the requirement to be ‘in communion with’ the Church of England and thence Supreme Governor of the Church of England.  Catholics in Britain might be willing to accept that, although their numbers are now broadly equal to Anglicans.  While welcoming the removal of the ‘unjust discrimination’ against Catholics, the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, said ‘At the same time I fully recognise the importance of the position of the established church [the Church of England] in protecting and fostering the role of faith in our society today’.  But in the 15 realms Catholics outnumber Anglicans by three to one, and they may be less understanding.

The ending of male primogeniture is less controversial.  Most other European monarchies have changed their rules of succession already to make them gender neutral.  Sweden changed their law in 1980, Holland in 1983, Norway in 1990, Belgium in 1991, Denmark in 2009 (with a referendum), Luxembourg in 2011.  Only Spain, Monaco and Liechtenstein retain male primogeniture.

More information: