‘The festering issue’ – the legality of a second independence referendum

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’.

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The 1997 Labour government’s constitutional reform programme: 25 years on

25 years have passed since the Labour election win of 1997, which preceded a plethora of constitutional changes, including partial reform of the House of Lords, devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the Human Rights Act. Tom Leeman summarises the contributions of three expert speakers (Professor Robert Hazell, Baroness (Shami) Chakrabarti and Lord (Charlie) Falconer of Thoroton) at a recent Unit event to mark the anniversary.

This year marked a quarter of a century since the victory of Tony Blair’s New Labour in the 1997 General Election on 1 May. Blair’s first government embarked upon a programme of constitutional reform, many elements of which, such as devolution, the Human Rights Act (HRA), and the status of hereditary peers in the Lords, still spark debate in the UK today.

To mark the anniversary and discuss the Blair government’s constitutional legacy the Unit convened an event with three expert panellists: Professor Robert Hazell, founding Director of the Constitution Unit, who supported the Cook-Maclennan talks on constitutional reform between Labour and the Liberal Democrats in 1996; Lord (Charlie) Falconer of Thoroton, who served as Lord Chancellor in the second and third Blair ministries from 2003 until 2007; and Baroness (Shami) Chakrabarti, who was Director of Liberty from 2003 until 2016. The event was chaired by Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit. The summaries below are presented in order of the speakers’ contributions.

Robert Hazell

Robert Hazell presented slides to summarise New Labour’s constitutional reform programme from their first election victory in 1997 until Gordon Brown’s resignation as prime minister in 2010. The reforms in Blair’s first term (1997-2001) were the biggest package of constitutional reforms in the twentieth century. They included devolution of power to assemblies in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast in 1998; incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law in the Human Rights Act; and the removal of hereditary peers from the House of Lords.

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Green shoots for the Union? The joint review of intergovernmental relations

A review of intergovernmental relations conducted jointly by the UK government and the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales was published last week. Michael Kenny and Jack Sheldon argue that the most important question facing the proposed new model for intergovernmental relations will be whether an enhanced system for bringing these governments into partnership will be endowed with real respect, and be allowed to take root, by the politicians at the helm.

The territorial chasm that opened beneath the Conservative Party’s feet following the demand made by Douglas Ross, its Scottish leader, that Boris Johnson resign, and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s retaliatory dismissal of him as ‘not a big figure’, shone an unflattering spotlight on some of the sharp tensions that devolution has created within the UK’s political parties.  

A much deeper divide has opened up in recent years between the UK government and the devolved governments in Cardiff and Edinburgh. Tensions that have been simmering since the election of administrations headed by different parties across the UK over a decade ago were exacerbated during the extended Brexit crisis, and since then more salt has been rubbed on these wounds during the COVID-19 pandemic. First Ministers Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon have been incentivised to make much of often minor differences in their approach from that adopted by the Johnson government. And yet there has been an abiding need for them and Whitehall to work together in the face of an airborne virus that does not respect the authority of internal borders.

While addressing the sharp differences that have emerged within the Conservative party looks difficult so long as Johnson remains in power, there is at least some cause for optimism that more functional arrangements for co-operation and engagement between the four governments within the UK are being put in place.

This arises specifically from the publication of the report of a long-running joint review which has been conducted by government officials from all parts of the UK. Landing amid the ‘partygate’ crisis engulfing Boris Johnson’s government, it has been largely ignored by the media and politicians at Westminster. But its content, and the thinking animating it, could prove to be an important factor in the future evolution and viability of the UK Union.

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The Elections Bill’s proposals on Electoral Commission governance: risks to electoral integrity and devolution

The Elections Bill has been subject to both criticism and praise, as discussed by Emilia Cieslak on this blog, and a panel of experts at a recent Unit seminar. In this post, Unit Deputy Director Alan Renwick identifies the threats to electoral integrity and devolution posed by the clauses of the bill that propose changes to the governance of the Electoral Commission.

The Elections Bill, currently before parliament, seeks to change many aspects of electoral law. Provisions to introduce voter ID requirements at polling stations have garnered most attention. But changes to the governance of the Electoral Commission also raise serious concerns. As currently formulated, they threaten both to weaken the vital independence of the elections watchdog and to violate the principles of the devolution settlement in Scotland and Wales.

Electoral Commission governance: principles and current practice

The Electoral Commission carries out a range of functions in overseeing elections and referendums and regulating campaign spending. As I have argued previously – in common with many others, not least the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) in a report published in July – the independence of the elections watchdog is vital to electoral integrity. If the government of the day can skew election or referendum conduct to suit its own ends, fairness – and thus democracy – is undermined. The Electoral Commission should, of course, be accountable too. An appropriate balance of independence and accountability is needed.

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