‘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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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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Scotland’s place in the Union will not be decided in the courts: only politicians can enable or prevent independence

Whether or not Scotland can legally hold a referendum without the consent of Westminster is a question that has provoked much debate. Ciaran Martin argues that the answer to this question does not really matter: regardless of the legality of any referendum, it is unrealistic to think that Scotland will leave the Union without the consent of Westminster. This makes the key question a political one, which the courts cannot resolve.

In mid-August I spoke at the Edinburgh International Book Festival about Scotland and the future of the United Kingdom. My theme was that when the constitutional debate resumes (which it will) after the post-Holyrood election lull, there could, and in my view should, be a debate not just on what independence means, but on what remaining in the Union means. This is a fundamentally different proposition than it was in 2014, and not just because of Brexit.

In 2014, the three UK-wide unionist parties (which, let’s not forget, at the time held 53 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats between them) were all evidently comfortable with devolution. Both the UK government and the broader Better Together campaign spoke of ‘the best of both worlds’ of an autonomous Scotland within a devolved UK. As the polls tightened, the response was ‘the vow’ of more devolution.

Things are different this time. In July, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford, leader of the most successful unionist party in any of the devolved territories, warned of ‘a Government that is instinctively hostile’ for the first time in the history of devolution. Sometimes such hostility is just blurted out; sometimes it becomes law, such as the constitutional land grab that is the Internal Market Act. Combined with the unworkability of fully federal models in the UK, this instability within the Union means that when Scotland is debating its constitutional future, the nature of the Union it’s being invited to stay in merits more discussion than last time.

Insofar as I thought any of my arguments would attract attention, it was this one. But instead, coverage emphasised a throwaway restatement of my long-articulated view that the Scottish government is likely (though I did not say certain) to lose any legal case brought against referendum legislation it seeks to pass in Holyrood in the absence of a Section 30 power agreed with Westminster.

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Ministerial standards in Westminster and beyond

Ministerial standards and the mechanisms for enforcing them have been in the news more than usual over the course of the last twelve months, making clear the limitations of the current rules and systems of regulating ministerial behaviour. In May, the Unit hosted an expert panel to discuss how the standards regimes work in the UK, and what reforms might be desirable. Dave Busfield-Birch summarises the contributions.

On 24 May, the Constitution Unit hosted an online webinar entitled Ministerial Standards in Westminster and Beyond. Unit founder Robert Hazell chaired the event, which had three distinguished panellists: Alex Allan, former independent adviser to the Prime Minister on ministerial interests; Susan Deacon, a former minister in Scotland who also sat on the Scottish Parliament’s Standards and Procedures committees; and Richard Thomas, a member of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA), which advises ministers and senior officials on potential conflicts of interest when they take up appointments after leaving Whitehall.

This post summarises the main contributions of the speakers: the full event, including the lively and informative Q&A, is available on our YouTube page.

Alex Allan

Alex Allan started his contribution by offering a little bit of history about the ‘rather strange document’ that is the Ministerial Code. Something similar to the Code has been in place since the Attlee government, but perhaps the most significant changes came in 1995 when the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) produced its first report, and outlined ‘Seven Principles of Public Life’, which are commonly referred to as the ‘Nolan principles’.

Another significant change came in 2007, when the Brown government published a paper on the governance of Britain, which resulted in the creation of the role of independent adviser on ministerial interests, a title held by Allan from 2011 until his resignation in 2020. Where there is an allegation about the conduct of a minister that the Cabinet Secretary feels warrants further investigation, the matter will be referred to the independent adviser. However, most of the work of the independent adviser is of little media interest, and involves dealing with declarations of ministers’ interests, which are examined by their permanent secretary and the propriety and ethics team at the Cabinet Office, before being examined by the independent adviser.

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Five key questions about coronavirus and devolution

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The coronavirus is a once in a generation event that has required an almost unprecedented response from government at all levels, from Westminster to West Lothian. Akash Paun argues that it has raised five crucial questions about the politics of devolution at a time when efficient and effective intergovernmental relations are crucial. 

Coronavirus has hit all parts of the UK and has required a comprehensive response by government at all levels – central, devolved and local. The crisis has raised (at least!) five big questions about devolution, intergovernmental relations and the politics of the Union:

  • Does the crisis show that the UK and devolved governments can cooperate effectively?
  • To what extent does devolution enable policy divergence between the UK nations?
  • How is the crisis affecting the operation of the devolved institutions themselves?
  • How is the pandemic response being funded – and with what impact on devolution?
  • What might this period mean for wider constitutional debates and the Union?

It is too early to give a definitive answer to any of these questions. But developments over the past few months already point to some preliminary conclusions, as well as identifying important lines of investigation for future research.

The UK and devolved governments can work together – at least in a crisis

One important finding, as the Institute for Government (IfG) recently concluded, is that the UK and devolved governments have shown the ability to work together well at various points over the past three months. Given the many disputes over Brexit, the Union and other matters in recent years, and the underlying weaknesses of the UK’s system of intergovernmental relations, it was far from a foregone conclusion that the different administrations would be able to cooperate at all.

But credit should be given where it is due. In early March, the UK and devolved governments published a joint Coronavirus Action Plan – a rare sighting of a government policy paper that was co-branded by the four administrations. There was close working too on the Coronavirus Act, which was drafted with significant devolved input before being passed at Westminster with devolved consent under the Sewel Convention. And devolved leaders participated in meetings of the COBRA emergency committee throughout this period, helping to ensure that major announcements, not least the imposition of the lockdown in late March, were coordinated between the capitals. Continue reading