The sovereignty conundrum and the uncertain future of the Union

Brexit has led to numerous clashes between London and the devolved governments, raising fundamental questions about the very nature of the United Kingdom, in a context where the European Union is no longer available as an ‘external support system’. Michael Keating argues that we need to find new constitutional concepts for living together in a world in which traditional ideas of national sovereignty have lost their relevance.

Since the Brexit vote, there have been repeated clashes between the UK and devolved governments. Some of these concern policy differences, notably over the form Brexit should take. Some reflect the inadequacies of mechanisms for intergovernmental relations. There is an inevitable rivalry between political parties at different levels. Beneath all this, however, are fundamental questions about the nature of the United Kingdom as a polity and where ultimate authority lies, especially after 20 years of devolution.

On the one hand, there is the classic or ‘Westminster’ doctrine, according to which sovereignty resides with the Monarch-in-Parliament. In the absence of a written, codified and enforceable constitution, this is the only foundation of authority. In this view, Westminster has merely ‘lent’ competences to the devolved legislatures, which can be taken back at any time, however politically imprudent that might be. Westminster may not often exercise this power but it provides a trump card in any conflict with the devolved authorities.

This is a powerful doctrine but at the same time an empty one since it rests on a tautology. Westminster is sovereign because, by dint of its sovereign authority, it says it is. The point was illustrated in the debates on the 1978 devolution legislation when an alliance of unionists and nationalists defeated a clause asserting that Westminster remained supreme, the nationalists because they did not want it to be true and the unionists because it was redundant. Westminster sovereignty is a myth, that is a story that may be true or false but works as long as people believe it. When the spell is broken, as it has in recent years, its supporters have to fall back on other arguments. There is a historical argument, that parliamentary sovereignty is rooted in constitutional practice; a normative argument, that in an age of universal suffrage, it really amounts to popular sovereignty; and an instrumental argument, that it allows for powerful and effective government. All are open to question. The historical argument is based on English practice and challenged in Scotland. The normative argument assumes that there is a single UK people with one channel for expression, rather than multiple peoples, the smaller nations having more inclusive electoral systems. The instrumental argument needs to be proven empirically rather than asserted.

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Can Boris Johnson stop Indyref2?

With the Scottish Parliament elections approaching, the Unit gathered together three experts to discuss the prospect of Boris Johnson seeking to block a second Scottish independence referendum, and how the Scottish government might respond to such efforts. Charlotte Kincaid summarises the contributions.

With the May 2021 Scottish Parliament elections approaching, and the recent attention on the continuing political conflict between First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her predecessor Alex Salmond, eyes are very much on Scotland and the prospect of a second independence referendum (‘Indyref2’). Boris Johnson has said he would refuse a referendum, but is this possible, and what would be the ramifications? To explore the possibility of Indyref2 and how such a referendum would be brought about, the Constitution Unit hosted a webinar with three experts: Professor Aileen McHarg of Durham Law School; James Forsyth, political editor of The Spectator magazine; and Dr Alan Renwick, Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit. The summaries below are presented in order of the speakers’ contributions.

Professor Aileen McHarg

Professor McHarg explored a number of pathways to a referendum from a legal perspective. She first addressed if the UK government can prevent a second Scottish independence referendum: it can, and it isn’t required to agree to a Section 30 order, or amendments to the Scotland Act to enable Holyrood to legislate for a second referendum – as was the case for the 2014 referendum.

But can the Scottish Parliament legislate for a referendum without a Section 30 order? This is less clear. The SNP has marked its intention to unilaterally introduce a referendum bill with or without a Section 30 order if it wins a majority in Holyrood following the May elections. If the bill passed, it would be subject to legal challenge. If the bill were judged as beyond the Scottish Parliament’s competence, any referendum which followed would not have a legal grounding, and in Aileen’s view, the idea of a referendum was ‘a non-starter’. She described talk of a wildcat referendum – such as that experienced in Catalonia in 2017 as ‘entirely misplaced’. There would be questions concerning the legitimacy of a unilaterally-called referendum, even if it were ruled lawful by the Supreme Court; unionists may be unwilling to engage in such a referendum.

Another possible pathway, although unlikely, is Westminster legislating to dissolve the Union. This is possible because a referendum on Scottish independence is not a legal requirement of independence.

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100 years of the Government of Ireland Act: how it provided a model for Westminster-Edinburgh relations

The Government of Ireland Act 1920 is 100 years old tomorrow. David Torrance examines the legislation and its impact, arguing that a number of the constitutional conventions that regulate relations between Westminster and Holyrood have roots in those that applied to Stormont between 1920 and 1972.

Wednesday 23 December marks the centenary of royal assent for the Government of Ireland Act 1920 (the ‘1920 Act’). That this created the part of the UK known as ‘Northern Ireland’ and its border is well known, but its devolution settlement – a parliament, government, governor and prime minister – has largely faded from public consciousness.

As the historian Graham Walker has observed, Northern Ireland ‘serves as a reminder that devolution and constitutional change has a long, complex, and fascinating history, and did not just appear magically at the end of the twentieth century’ [1]. Indeed, this blog will argue that many of the constitutional conventions now associated with Holyrood-Westminster relations have antecedents in those which developed between Stormont and the UK parliament between 1921 and 1972. There was also one major difference, self-determination, analysis of which concludes this piece.

A ‘sound custom’ of non-interference

Speaking during Lords consideration of the Scotland Bill in 1998, Lord Sewel observed that ‘as happened in Northern Ireland earlier in the century’ the government would expect ‘a convention to be established that Westminster would not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters in Scotland without the consent of the Scottish parliament’. This would later come to be known as the Sewel convention.

The Northern Ireland precedent acknowledged by Lord Sewel was established in 1922 when Home Secretary Edward Shortt (who had responsibility for GB-NI relations at the time, as there was no Northern Ireland Office) advised withholding royal assent for a bill abolishing the Single Transferable Vote method for local government elections (a matter ‘transferred’ to Belfast). When Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister Sir James Craig and his Cabinet threatened to resign, assent was granted.

By 1953, a Treasury document could state that:

In practice the United Kingdom Parliament refrains from legislating on matters with which the Northern Ireland Parliament can deal, except at the request and with the consent of Northern Ireland. It is recognised that any departure from this practice would be open to objection as impairing the responsibility which has been placed on the Northern Ireland Parliament and Government.

HM Treasury, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man: A Treasury Paper, December 1953, page 9
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Is the UK-Scotland Supreme Court case the start of a new phase of constitutional conflict?

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The UK and Scottish governments are engaged in a legal dispute about the Scottish Parliament’s Brexit legislation, leading to the matter being argued before the UK Supreme Court on 24 and 25 July. Akash Paun fears this could be the start of a new phase of conflict between Westminster and Edinburgh.

In July, the UK and Scottish governments squared off at the UK Supreme Court in a case relating to the Scottish Parliament’s EU ‘Continuity’ Bill (the Continuity Bill) and whether or not it is constitutional, in light of the provisions of the Scotland Act 1998.

The purpose of the Continuity Bill is to ensure there is continuity in Scottish law after Brexit. It retains EU law in devolved areas such as the environment and food standards, and creates powers for Scottish ministers to amend the law so it can operate effectively outside the EU. It therefore has a similar purpose to the UK government’s European Union (Withdrawal) Act (the Withdrawal Act), which was passed at Westminster in June, controversially without Scottish consent for the devolution provisions.

The Continuity Bill was passed by the Scottish Parliament in March, but two of the UK Government’s senior Law Officers, the Attorney General and the Advocate General for Scotland, referred the bill to the UK Supreme Court in April. This is the first time a bill passed by a devolved parliament has been challenged in this way. A similar continuity bill for Wales was also passed in March, but it is now being repealed following agreement between Westminster and Cardiff over the terms of the Withdrawal Act. Both the Welsh and Northern Irish governments were represented at the hearing. 

This is a complex case, as more than one of the judges themselves remarked during the proceedings. Judgment is expected in the autumn, and the Continuity Bill could be ruled within or outside the competence of the Scottish government, or it could be referred back to Edinburgh for amendment, in order to make it compatible with UK law. Continue reading