Independence: Time for a Substantive Debate

There will be a referendum on Scottish independence. This fact, I fear, so many in my party have yet to grasp. It’s understandable given that the SNP have already been in power for over four years, and were presented with an offer (the sincerity of which I would doubt) of Parliamentary support for a referendum by Wendy Alexander. It’s clear that Alex Salmond’s government aren’t in any rush to hold a referendum, knowing full well what a “no” vote could potentially do to his party, and the present timetable puts the holding a referendum eight clear years after the SNP first winning power. Nonetheless the SNP’s healthy majority in the Scottish Parliament means Alex Salmond has no excuse for not holding one by the end of this Parliamentary session.

With the exception of Henry McLeish’s recent intervention, the constitutional debate thus far has focused on the timing of a referendum, as well as a somewhat binary argument about the merits of separation. Very little regard has been paid to the substantial questions surrounding what an independent Scotland would actually look like. This, I suspect, is largely to do with an apprehension on the part of unionist parties towards accepting independence as a premise for discussions about Scotland’s future for fear of lending it credence. The SNP, meanwhile, are quite content for the details to be deliberately vague, allowing them to focus instead on populist arguments about sovereignty and self determination. I would contend, therefore, that without a serious debate about what sort of society an independent Scotland would actually look like then the unionist cause is doomed to failure.

So far, the only template we have to work from is the SNP’s Constitution for a free Scotland drafted in 2002. Oddly enough this hasn’t received very much attention since the SNP came to power, from politicians or scholars alike – with the exception of Bulmer’s recent study in Parliamentary Affairs. Written by former leader Bob MacIntyre and renowned constitutional scholar Sir Neil McCormick, the document appears at least to have entered SNP canon.

On the whole the document largely follows the Westminster model. It provides for a Constitutional Monarchy, with Crown prerogative being exercised by the Executive who, in turn, are drawn from the unicameral legislature. This approach is understandable given the desire of nationalists to present independence as being as unfrightening as possible. However this in itself poses the question: if you’re going to design a system from scratch, why on earth would you choose the one we’ve got?

My comrades in the Labour Party will testify to the fact that I’m most certainly not a republican in so far as the United Kingdom is concerned however it strikes me that the arguments which are usually proffered in favour of retention of the monarchy, being tradition and tourism, don’t really apply. The Constitution also provides that :

During any period of absence of the Monarch from Scotland, the Chancellor of Scotland (the elected presiding officer of Parliament) shall act as Head of State

Given that we could expect the Sovereign to be absent from Scotland for the vast majority of every year the Presiding Officer of Parliament would inevitably become the de facto head of state. This compromise between the traditional role of the monarch and an indirectly elected head of state seems to be imbued with the worst of both worlds – lacking the legitimacy of a directly elected head of state or the credibility of the British Sovereign.

Alex Salmond regularly asserts upon swearing his oath that he believes in the “ancient Scots Constitutional Principle that the people of Scotland are sovereign” (though where in our present constitution he finds that principle is beyond me) – why, therefore, would we design a system where sovereignty appears to flow from the top? There is no basis in popular sovereignty for the concept of “crown prerogative” and yet that is precisely what this constitution provides for.

Turning to the legislature, the Constitution provides for a single chambered parlaiment with committies similar in character to those in the present Scottish Parliament. It attempts to stymie the power of the majority in the legislature by providing that any measure can be delayed for 18-months by a two-fifths majority in Parliament. This, surely, simply means that governments will force through their least popular legislation legislation early in the parliamentary session and and the tail-end of any session could well end up being gridlocked. Furthermore, the committees appear to have no greater role than they do in the present Scottish Parliament. While the work of some of the committees over the past 12 years is to be commended they have not, on the whole, proved to be the effective check they were supposed to be.

Insofar as local government is concerned the draft constitution says little, but what is does say contradicts itself. It guarantees local government “genuine autonomy” from central government, yet in the same clause gives parliament a general power to legislate for local government – presumably including to potentially scrap it. Surely genuinely autonomous local government would be prescribed by the constitution, with its powers, functions and revenue guaranteed therein?

I offer these merely as illustrations of the various questions that surround Scotland’s constitutional future. Nationalists propose independence as a means of delivering a new Scotland, but you barely have to scratch the surface to see that what’s on offer hardly differs from the Scotland we’ve got. Political parties need to fully engage not simply with the question of whether or not Scotland should be independent but of what that independent Scotland would look like. For the nationalists it’s a chance to paint a new picture, of a daring new political structure where sovereignty genuinely flows from the people. For the unionists it’s a chance to highlight how shallow the change that’s on offer really is. Which ever side of the debate does this first will likely win the argument.