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.