Are unionists the biggest threat to the Union?

There has been much debate in recent years (on this blog and elsewhere) on the validity of a second referendum on an independent Scotland. Defence of the Union has often been by reassertion of the unitary nation-state model. Michael Keating argues that this demonstrates a fundamental misconception of what union means, and that the nationalism implied by the nature of a union maintained by law, rather than the consent of its people, represents a threat to the continuing Union of the United Kingdom.

In its 2020 White Paper on the Internal Market, the British government described the United Kingdom as a ‘unitary state’. Although, for many at Westminster, this might sound rather banal, it betrays a serious misunderstanding of what is, and always has been, a plurinational union. Such misunderstandings are pulling the Union apart.

Four dimensions

In my book State and Nation in the United Kingdom, I spell out the difference between a unitary nation-state and a plurinational union by reference to four dimensions: demos; telos; ethos; and sovereignty.

Demos refers to the people and whether they are singular or plural. When prime ministers declare that ‘the British people’ voted for Brexit, they are invoking a unitary demos, but begging the question of what ‘the British people’ actually means. In fact, the peoples of ‘these islands’ have varied national identities, some identifying only as British and others not seeing themselves as British at all. It is not as simple as four separate identities because, within each of the component nations, there are complex forms of belonging and multiple forms of national identification. Some unionists are now arguing that Britishness is a common, overarching identity but that, underneath it, are the local varieties. Yet this does not work either. Britishness itself is experienced and defined very differently from one part of the United Kingdom to another. The fact that the United Kingdom does not even have an adjective for its citizens indicates the difficulty of fitting Northern Ireland in. Britishness is analogous to what the philosopher Wittgenstein called a ‘family resemblance’. Any two members of the family may share a feature in common but there is no feature common to them all.

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‘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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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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