A second Scottish independence referendum without a s.30 Order? A legal question that demands a political answer

In this blog Stephen Tierney argues that the legality of a unilateral referendum organised by the Scottish Parliament is a grey area. He also offers personal reflections from his experience as a parliamentary adviser at the time of the 2014 referendum and contends that a referendum held without an agreed process would have been damaging then and would be damaging now. It is incumbent upon both governments to ensure that a political solution to the current dispute is achieved and that, in particular, such a divisive issue is not left to the courts to settle. 

The Scottish Parliament today concludes its debate on whether to request from the UK parliament a ‘s.30 Order’ under the Scotland Act 1998. This would provide unequivocal authority for the Scottish Parliament to hold a second independence referendum. Westminster is likely to refuse this request for the time being at least, raising the question of whether the Scottish Parliament can legislate to hold a referendum without such consent.

In 2012 I argued that there was a plausible case to be made that the current powers of the Scottish Parliament do indeed allow it to legislate on the subject of an independence referendum; a view shared by several colleagues. The argument was that a consultative exercise, asking the electorate if they favoured an independent Scotland, could be legally permissible. Crucial to the legality of such a referendum, however, would also be its legal inconsequentiality; it would not bind the UK government to give effect to a pro-independence outcome.

I still consider this argument to be valid; the relevant devolved powers of the Scottish Parliament have not changed since that time. But I went on to serve as Constitutional Adviser to the Scottish Parliament Referendum Bill Committee which helped shape the bills (here and here) which regulated the 2014 referendum. What became clear to me was that, regardless of whether one was a Yes or a No voter, it was far better in terms of fostering a conducive environment for debate that a referendum, without the consent of the UK parliament, was not attempted. The fact that the 2014 referendum was the product of the Edinburgh Agreement between the Scottish and UK governments is central to how commentators now look upon that referendum as a valid and deliberative, if not uncontentious, exercise in popular decision-making.

In this blog I will briefly set out the zone of legal uncertainty, one which does suggest that the Scottish Parliament’s powers in this area are potentially broader than is often claimed. My main goal, however, is to make a plea for political restraint by both governments in recognition that this is fundamentally an issue of politics and not of law, and that in the interests of a healthy, democratic political process, it is incumbent upon the two governments not to allow an uncertain area of law to become a political football.

I would emphasise that this is not a call for unilateral self-restraint by the Scottish government and Scottish Parliament; both sides must work to ensure that this matter does not end up before the courts with potentially disastrous consequences for the reputation of the UK’s Supreme Court and the health of our democracy.

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A second independence referendum in Scotland: the legal issues

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon yesterday declared the Scottish government’s intention to hold a second referendum on independence by spring 2019. In this post Stephen Tierney discusses the steps that have to be gone through before this is realised. He suggests that although a referendum is not inevitable the Scottish government are not bluffing about it – if, as seems likely, it can gain a majority in the Scottish Parliament to request a s. 30 Order, and can convince Westminster to grant this, then the path will be set for a referendum process that could see Scotland leave the UK just as the UK leaves the EU.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon yesterday announced the Scottish government’s intention to hold a second referendum on independence between the autumn of 2018 and the spring of 2019. The move comes ahead of the start of Brexit negotiations under Article 50 of the Treaty of European Union, expected to be triggered by the end of the month. The next two years are set to be consumed by two parallel processes that will see the UK leave the EU and could also see Scotland leave the UK in an effort to remain within the EU.

Can the Scottish Parliament hold a referendum without the consent of Westminster?

Whether the Scottish Parliament can unilaterally hold an ‘advisory’ referendum on this issue has never been finally resolved. But it seems clear that the Scottish government does not propose to test this issue; instead it will seek the consent of Westminster to a so-called s. 30 Order, thereby ensuring that the UK government will have to accept the referendum result.

A s. 30 Order would involve a temporary transfer of power from the UK parliament to the Scottish Parliament to allow the referendum to go ahead, along similar lines to the 2014 process. The Scottish government indicated its intention to go down this route in its white paper, ‘Consultation on a Draft Referendum Bill’ published in October last year, and this was also confirmed by the First Minister today when she stated that she will ask the Scottish Parliament next week for permission to request a s. 30 order.

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Brexit, federalism and Scottish independence

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As the UK withdraws from the EU, is this the opportune moment for a restructuring of the Union along (con)federal lines? On 13 February, the Constitution Unit hosted a panel discussion on ‘Brexit, Federalism, and Scottish Independence’, to explore this question further. The panel, chaired by Kenny Farquharson, consisted of Professor Jim Gallagher, Kezia Dugdale and Baroness (Jenny) Randerson. Seema Syeda reports.

Opening the Constitution Unit’s seminar on ‘Brexit, federalism and Scottish Independence’ on 13 February, Kenny Farquharson declared that ‘Brexit is a painting that has not yet dried’. After the EU referendum result exposed a nation fractured along the lines of geography, age, wealth, and education the full consequences are yet to become apparent. The divisions now manifest in UK society are troubling enough to satisfy the worst of cynics – yet, in the greatest constitutional upheaval the UK has seen in decades, some have spied an opportunity.

Might the transfer of wide-ranging powers from Brussels, not only to Whitehall but also to the devolved administrations, provide an opportunity to revitalise our democracy through a newly federal UK? Important competencies relating to agriculture, fisheries and the environment will, unless the UK government legislates otherwise, return to the Scottish Parliament and to the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies. Both the devolved and central governments will therefore see a dramatic increase in their powers. Brexit, as ‘wet paint on canvas’, in a continuation of Farquharson’s vividly imagined metaphor, might be an opportunity to restructure the relationship between the UK’s four constituent nations.

These possibilities were discussed by a panel which consisted of Professor Jim Gallagher, Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale and former Liberal Democrat Welsh Assembly member and Wales Office minister Baroness (Jenny) Randerson. Kenny Macaskill, Cabinet Secretary for Justice in the Scottish government under Alex Salmond, was also due to attend but unfortunately could not make it due to unavoidable business in Scotland.

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Negotiating Brexit in a devolved state: the dynamics of intergovernmental relations

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Theresa May has repeatedly declared her commitment to involving the devolved governments in the Brexit process. In this post, Nicola McEwen discusses the likely dynamics of Brexit negotiations between the UK’s four governments. She argues that if the intergovernmental process fails to give a meaningful voice to the devolved governments this could have serious and long-lasting repercussions for territorial politics across the UK.

 As we ponder the forthcoming Brexit negotiations between the UK government and the EU27, another set of negotiations is already underway. The UK government and the devolved administrations have kick-started a period of intergovernmental relations which promise to be more intense than any that have gone before. This is a high stakes process. The extent to which it gives a meaningful voice to the devolved governments represents the Union’s biggest test since the Scottish independence referendum.

The Prime Minister has frequently declared her commitment to engaging with the devolved governments. After her symbolically significant visit to meet Scotland’s First Minister shortly after she assumed office, Theresa May noted: ‘I have already said that I won’t be triggering Article 50 until I think that we have a UK approach and objectives for negotiations – I think it is important that we establish that before we trigger Article 50.’ There have been some mixed messages since then, but at October’s plenary session of the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) – the first since December 2014 – the PM continued to insist she wanted the input of the devolved administrations in shaping Brexit: ‘The country is facing a negotiation of tremendous importance and it is imperative that the devolved administrations play their part in making it work.’ Quite what part she envisages them playing remains unclear.

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Sturgeon sets Scotland on collision course with May’s government

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Yesterday, at the SNP autumn conference in Glasgow, Nicola Sturgeon addressed her party faithful for the first time since the UK voted to leave the European Union. Akash Paun argues that the speech sets the UK and Scottish governments on a collision course.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s opening address to the SNP conference in Glasgow emphasised both her continued opposition to Brexit, especially a withdrawal from the single market, and also her intention to keep Scottish independence high on the agenda. These two issues are very much intertwined in a single debate about Scotland’s right to determine its own constitutional future. Sturgeon has consistently argued that it would be ‘democratically unacceptable’ for Scotland to be taken out of the EU, given that 62 per cent of Scots voted Remain.

Another referendum on independence

Sturgeon announced that her government would publish a draft Independence Referendum Bill as early as next week, paving the way for a rerun of the 2014 referendum in which Scots voted by 55 per cent to 45 per cent to remain in the UK.

Opponents will inevitably argue that this was a decisive victory for the unionist side, and that there is therefore no call for another referendum so soon, not least since that vote was described at the time as a ‘once-in-a-generation decision’. Anticipating this critique, Sturgeon argued yesterday that ‘a UK out of the single market will not be the same country that Scotland voted to stay part of in 2014.’

In 2014, the UK and Scottish administrations struck a deal on the referendum, and legislation was passed at Westminster to allow Scotland to hold a one-off vote on independence on specific agreed terms. Crucially, this power was not devolved permanently and it has now expired. This would imply that an agreement might be needed once more. If the UK government is unwilling to play ball and the Scottish Parliament presses ahead nonetheless with a second referendum, the prospect of a legal challenge by the UK government would loom.

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Brexit presents an opportunity to move towards a confederal UK

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On the face of it Brexit appears likely to pull Scotland in a direction that it does not want to go. But could Brexit actually create the conditions for a solution that leaves most people happy enough, and does not leave the other side resentful? Jim Gallagher suggests that this is a possibility. The return of powers from Brussels not only to Whitehall, but also the devolved governments, presents an opportunity to move towards a confederal constitution that could satisfy the demands of people in all parts of the Union.

The absence of a coherent strategy for getting the UK out of Europe is becoming increasingly clear. Brexit is construed ever more narrowly as simply a bid for independence, a search for sovereignty (not parliamentary sovereignty, it seems, as parliament will have no say in triggering the negotiations leading to the UK’s departure). This tells us something about referendums as a decision-making device, and points to what a bad idea Brexit as a pretext for another Scottish independence referendum is. But, paradoxically, the government’s post-Brexit destination might just offer the chance of a more constructive resolution for Scottish-UK relations.

It is increasingly clear that Brexit was a nationalist referendum. Both sides would be insulted by the comparison, but Messrs Johnson and Gove spent the campaign singing the same tune as Alex Salmond. Both claimed to be positive, but were essentially negative. They were telling people to vote against a union – European or British. But voting against something is writing a blank cheque for something else. And if you write a blank cheque, somebody else fills it in.

In Whitehall today, the three Brexit ministers can’t agree how to fill that cheque in. That’s hardly surprising, since their pre-referendum promises were inconsistent: we are not going to get the single market without free movement of labour. This shows the first big problem with the referendum as a device. If people vote against something, there is no saying what they will get instead, and when the campaigners aren’t in a position to deliver their promises, the outcome will probably be something the population don’t actually want. Chances are, had it been offered them in terms, a majority of voters would have rejected the Brexit deal we are about to get.

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A tale of two Unions: can circles be squared by a new devolution settlement?

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In the wake of the EU referendum result there has been much discussion about the possibility of Scotland and Northern Ireland preserving closer relationships with the EU than the UK as a whole. Brian Walker writes that the idea that Scotland and Northern Ireland could be exempted from Brexit lacks credibility, but that demands for some sort of continuing relationship with the EU should be examined closely. Failure to take these suggestions seriously could have significant implications for the future of the British Union.

No one can have been surprised that fundamental political fault lines opened up again in the shock of the Brexit referendum result. As the Westminster government struggle to find a platform to stand on to trigger Article 50, in Scotland the issues are being treated with considerable caution and in Ireland with something close to despair. Viewed from Westminster, each is still a sideshow because a brutal binary choice between the continuing UK and continuing membership of the EU is one they are not ready to face. Indeed, since the referendum polling in favour of fundamental constitutional change has barely shifted.  In Scotland support for independence still scores a few notches under 50 per cent, well short of the SNP’s target of 60 per cent for calling a second independence referendum. In Northern Ireland, while Sinn Féin promptly called for a border poll, an Ipsos MORI opinion survey for the BBC released published in early September found 63 per cent in favour of the continuing UK, only two points below a similar survey three years ago, with a resounding 83 per cent claiming the Brexit result did not affect their opinion.

But it would be a mistake to believe that in the end the Scots and all kinds of Irish will tag along behind England’s lead. New thinking is emerging that might allow the ‘nations’ to preserve relationships with the EU which are compatible with an increasingly devolving UK that has severed its main institutional links with the EU at the centre.

Constitutionally, the argument that their Remain majorities might win Scotland and Northern Ireland straight exemptions from the overall referendum result tout court lacks credibility. The ‘reverse Greenland model’ has its attractions but the difference in scale and complexity with the British Isles makes it difficult to follow beyond the basic notion.

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