With the Scottish government gearing up for a second independence referendum, questions have been raised about whether or not the Scottish Parliament can legislate for such a poll in a way that the courts will find lawful. In this post, David Torrance discusses the wording of the relevant legislation and the impact of subsequent caselaw, concluding that the prevailing legal understanding is that even a consultative referendum would be outside the scope of the parliament’s powers.
During the House of Lords’ consideration of what would become the Scotland Act 1998, Lord (Donald) Mackay of Drumadoon (a former Lord Advocate and subsequently a Scottish judge) told peers it would be ‘perfectly possible to construct a respectable legal argument’ that it was within the legislative competence of the soon-to-be-created Scottish Parliament to pass a bill authorising an independence referendum.
Lord Mackay added that he remained ‘convinced that the law on this matter should be clarified. If it is not then the festering issue as to whether the Scottish parliament is competent to hold such a referendum will rumble on.’ That was arguably a dictionary definition of prescience.
The debate, if not ‘festering’ does indeed ‘rumble on’ nearly a quarter of a century later, yet much of the commentary seems curiously circular, turning over arguments which might have been relevant in 1998 or 2012 but are less so in 2022. Chief among these is the idea that an ‘advisory’ or ‘consultative’ referendum might pass muster if the dispute were to reach the Supreme Court.
But first let us return to the Lords in 1998. Speaking for the government, Lords Sewel and Hardie (respectively a Scottish Office minister and the then Lord Advocate) were clear that an independence referendum bill would ‘relate to’ the reserved matter of the Union between Scotland and England and would therefore be ultra vires and outside the competence of the Scottish Parliament. As Lord (David) Hope of Craighead later observed, ‘the Scotland Act provides its own dictionary’.
On 7 December Angus Robertson MP, the leader of the Scottish National Party group at Westminster, came to The Constitution Unit to set out his vision of social union between the nations of the UK. The full text of his talk can be accessed here. Matthew Rice reports.
The Scottish National Party’s use of the term ‘social union’ is nothing new. Indeed, as a ‘Yes’ campaign organiser stated on the website Open Democracy prior to last year’s independence referendum, ‘the independence movement is in a strong position if it can argue that the social union will be preserved and even strengthened after independence’. Maintaining that Britain’s social union would be preserved was seen as a way of bringing into the fold those who were concerned about the potential loss of the strong economic, institutional, historical and cultural ties between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Angus Robertson developed this line of reasoning in his talk, suggesting that ‘the SNP argument [during the independence referendum] was to break the political union but not the social union’. But how can the term ‘social union’ be conceptualised?
Helpful in this regard is Alex Salmond’s Hugo Young Lecture from January 2012, in which he outlined Britain’s shared economic, cultural and familial ties. Interestingly, both Salmond in 2012 and Robertson in his Constitution Unit talk cited the deployment of Scottish police officers to England at the height of the UK-wide riots in the summer of 2011 as an example of the social union in action. Robertson also alluded to the deployment of RAF Typhoon jet fighters from the RAF base in Lossiemouth against Daesh in Syria as a further example of the different nations of the UK working together – although he questions the legitimacy of such action, given that all but two of Scotland’s MPs voted against military action.