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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Things flying apart? Analysing the results of the devolved elections

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On 25 May the Constitution Unit invited three electoral experts to give their analysis on the results of the recent devolved elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In this post Artur Foguet Gonzalez summarises their key insights.

 The fifth round of elections to the devolved parliaments and assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland took place on 5 May. On 25 May the Constitution Unit hosted three electoral experts ­– Professors Ailsa Henderson, Roger Scully and Cathy Gormley-Heenan – to digest the results. This post summarises the key points that were raised by the speakers.

Scotland: Professor Ailsa Henderson, University of Glasgow

Scotland awoke the morning after the election to two significant results: the Scottish National Party (SNP) was still the largest party in Holyrood but no longer held a majority, whilst Labour’s decline continued as it fell behind the Conservatives to become the third largest party in Scotland. Ailsa Henderson used her data from the Scottish Election Study (SES) to explain these results.

For the SNP three factors explain their continued popularity: the constitution, valence and leadership. Though the data shows that the constitution is not top of voters’ agenda, it also shows that voters are very unlikely to back a party that does not share their view on independence, so whilst the constitution may not be driving voter choice, it is a constraining factor. The SNP was the only party likely to collect votes from those who had supported independence in the 2014 referendum, whilst No voters were split between multiple parties. On valence, when voters were asked which party they trusted most on particular issues the SNP came top, not only on ‘standing up for Scotland’ but on every single issue. Nicola Sturgeon, meanwhile, remains an extremely popular figure.

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The Scotland Bill so far: Major constitutional legislation proceeding at the speed of an express train

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Plans for expanding the powers of the Scottish Parliament have developed rapidly since the Scottish referendum. Jim Gallagher takes advantage of the pause afforded by Parliament’s summer recess to take stock of the Scotland Bill’s progress, and consider the stability of increased decentralisation in the longer term.

Parliament’s summer recess is a good time to catch breath and reflect on the breakneck process of the Scotland Bill. This is constitutional legislation, but proceeding at the speed of an express train.

Express delivery of new powers for the Scottish Parliament was promised during the referendum campaign. The pro-union parties promised – in what was to become the Smith commission – to agree plans in very short order; then they made ‘The Vow’ about what those plans would contain (in, of all places, the Daily Record). The timetable demanded draft legislation before the general election, and a bill introduced immediately thereafter. All of this has duly happened.

The Scotland Bill is very similar to the pre-election draft, with changes to address points of criticism. It is faithful to the Smith recommendations: Virtually complete devolution of income tax – Check. Assignment of half of VAT – Check. Declaration of constitutional permanence for the Scottish Parliament, and legislative basis for (what we must still call) the Sewel Convention – Check. Devolving £2.5 billion of benefits – Check. So from any perspective this is major stuff.

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Scotland has voted for the union and for distinctiveness. Delivering both could present acute challenges

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After a dramatic referendum and UK general election, the Scottish remain divided on both independence and on whether to increase tax and public spending, while the English are becoming increasingly vocal in the devolution debate. Jim Gallagher considers the possibilities of a constitutional relationship that will satisfy Scottish aspirations and also be acceptable to the UK as a whole.

This is the second in a series of posts based on the Unit’s latest report, Devolution and the Future of the Union, published here.

Within the last year the Scottish people have said two apparently contradictory things. They want to stay in the United Kingdom, and they want to be represented by the SNP. In Holyrood, the SNP exercise dominant control over both Parliament and government. In Westminster, they will be the overwhelming Scottish voice, but will control nothing.

The partisan politics of the general election have been extraordinary. The Labour vote collapsed, and the SNP showed remarkable skill in building a coalition of voters, some for independence, others perhaps against austerity. But this tells us less about overall Scottish attitudes on either question than meets the eye. Scotland remains divided on both independence and on whether to increase tax and public spending, and not on the lines you might expect. Many independence supporters are anything but high spending socialists.

Constitutional challenges

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Better intergovernmental relations for better devolution

Alan Trench calls for a more systematic approach to intergovernmental relations between the devolved and UK governments. He argues that leaving matters to be handled in ad hoc, reactive, unstructured way is no longer an option.

Intergovernmental relations are key to making devolution work effectively. The Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly all operate in a wider context of governance across the UK, and how their functions overlap with those of the UK government (and each other) is vital for all four governments and all UK citizens. The Smith Commission’s recent report pays a good deal of attention to the need to ‘beef up’ intergovernmental co-ordination as part of the package of further devolution.

The UK government is not very interested in managing intergovernmental relations, however. It put in place an attenuated under-institutionalised set of mechanisms in 1999, and has allowed these to weaken or fall further into disuse since then. The key institution is the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC). Plenary meetings of this body ceased altogether between 2002 and 2008; they have been more or less annual since then, but are characterised by grandstanding rather than productive work. The JMC’s ‘Domestic’ format has nearly ceased to function, as so few policy issues concern more than one devolved government. The only established format of the JMC which does meet regularly, and does more or less what it was expected to, is the EU format which helps formulate the UK ‘line’ for major EU Council meetings, though there are problems even there. In reality, most intergovernmental issues are bilateral, and with few exceptions they are dealt with in an ad hoc, casual way, out of sight of public or legislatures. As a result many important issues slip through the net.

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Is a federal Britain now inevitable?

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Federalism has rarely been seen as an attractive option by the British political class. Yet it may be the only solution to the deep imbalances which will come with radical new powers for the Scottish Parliament if the Smith Commission proposals are implemented, writes Stephen Tierney.

The Smith Commission Report issued on Thursday promises a restructuring of the United Kingdom which may prove to be more significant than the devolution settlement of 1997-98 itself; the acquisition of extensive tax and welfare powers would make Scotland one of the most autonomous regions in western Europe.

Notably the UK’s economic and fiscal coherence has hitherto been a key factor in allowing the asymmetrical and ad hoc nature of devolution to embed itself without any great disruption to the constitutional structures of the central state. With the dismantling of this system it seems that a tipping point might well be reached for our lop-sided and messy system of territorial government. The Smith Commission proposals, if implemented, will have knock-on consequences for several fundamental features of the UK constitution: parliamentary supremacy, the idea of the House of Commons as a national chamber for Britain, possibly the nature and composition of the House of Lords, and the relative freedom of the UK Government in its dealings with the devolved executives. It is perhaps ironic therefore, but I believe also inevitable, that a process which was designed studiously to avoid the federal question will now bring federalism to the table as possibly the only medium term solution to the deep imbalances which will come with further, radical powers for the Scottish Parliament.

How does Smith raise the federal question?

Federalism has rarely been seen as an attractive option by the British political class, and its feasibility as a constitutional project for Britain is certainly not beyond question. But some kind of federal solution will surely be needed to deal with two related issues: the extent to which Scotland’s representation within the House of Commons, so far only marginally affected by devolution (reduced from 72 to 59 by way of the Scotland Act 1998 as amended), will appear ever more anomalous as the Scottish Parliament’s powers expand; and the very real risk that as Scotland becomes ever more detached from Westminster, the Union will become largely irrelevant to many Scots. The latter is far more dangerous since it could well mean that Scottish independence is in the longer term now more rather than less likely. If this is true the unionist parties, which make up the majority of the Smith ‘Commission’ (which was in reality an inter-party bargaining group), risk seizing defeat from the jaws of referendum victory.

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Solomon Grundy does constitutional change: The Smith Commission timetable to transform the Scottish Parliament

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Stephen Tierney expresses concerns over the Smith Commission timetable, highlighting that the speed leaves little time for appropriate due diligence and detracts from the democratic credibility of the process. He argues that there is a need for restraint, and a more independent and inclusive review over a longer period.

In the month of November the Smith Commission is set to draw up the most significant programme of constitutional change for the United Kingdom since 1998. Already the period within which citizens could submit their views on this process has passed; the Commission having set a deadline of 5 p.m. on 31 October.

Such a rapid process runs counter to both the due diligence that is surely needed before any decision is taken to restructure the UK tax (and possibly welfare) systems so radically and the due process which ought to accompany such a seminal constitutional development. Unfortunately the principles of deliberative constitutional decision-making and popular democratic engagement which figured strongly in the recent independence referendum are unlikely to gain much traction in the current rush to change.

The referendum campaign was indeed a remarkable period of citizen empowerment. The turnout of 84.7% is only one dimension of this; in a deeper way many citizens were greatly invigorated by the referendum and the role they had in discussing and ultimately in making such a huge decision. The Smith Commission process, by contrast, bears all the hallmarks of a return to elite-led constitutional change; and it is deeply ironic that the impetus for such a rapid and party-led process should be the independence referendum itself. As the 18th of September approached and the polls seemed to tighten, the leaders of the main unionist parties issued ‘The Vow’, promising more powers for the Scottish Parliament and setting out a firm timetable for change.

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