‘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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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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