All three devolved first ministers have now written to the Prime Minister seeking to ensure that the referendum on the UK’s EU membership is not held in June. The current thinking suggests that 23 June may be in David Cameron’s mind, assuming all goes well in reaching a final agreement with the other member states in the renegotiation. The First Ministers’ concern is proximity to devolved elections, and they are right to be concerned; the surprise is that their concern is not shared by Conservatives, or Labour, at Westminster.
The timetable for the EU referendum is not clear, but there are two fixed dates running up to the process. The first is the deadline for publication by the UK Government of
a report which contains … information about rights, and obligations, that arise … as a result of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, and … examples of countries that do not have membership of the European Union but do have other arrangements with the European Union (describing, in the case of each country given as an example, those arrangements).
This is required by section 7 of the European Union Referendum Act 2015, and must take place not less than 10 weeks before the referendum date.
The second is the formal referendum campaign period, during which the two designated In and Out campaigns will have referendum election broadcasts, rights to public funding, and be required to keep detailed accounts. All that is complicated and requires effort and engagement from those involved in campaigning (and can easily be got wrong). It also means engaging the public with issues about the UK’s future relationship with Europe rather than parties’ plans for taxation, housing policy or the health service. That period starts 10 weeks before referendum polling day.
I’ve an article in today’s Scotland on Sunday about how the referendum result defines the scope of the work of the Smith Commission, and what it can and cannot deliver. I argue that the referendum choice excludes some options, because they are incompatible with the Union that Scots voted to remain part of on 18 September, and that attempts to widen the process will be obvious as attempts to frustrate it. It can be found here.
UPDATE: The text of the article as originally filed is now pasted below.
The Smith Commission starts its work with two great advantages over predecessors like the Calman Commission, the National Conversation, or even the Scottish Constitutional Convention. First, it has all the major parties involved. Second, its remit is clear: it is not just to consider Scotland’s constitutional future, but to do that in the context of Scotland remaining part of the United Kingdom. For the first time, all the actors are involved, and the purpose is clear: to work out a sensible model for further devolution for Scotland, recognising that Scotland’s future lies in the United Kingdom not outside it, and that this must be decided soon.
There are two myths going around about what happens following a No vote in the Scottish referendum.
First, it’s said that plans for ‘more devolution’ are unclear. They are not. The three pro-UK parties have different schemes for them, it’s true, but there is a substantial degree of common ground between them. All involve devolution of most or all of personal income tax to the Scottish Parliament. Labour and Conservatives both support forms of welfare devolution, which – among other things – would have enabled Scotland to opt out of the Housing Benefit change that led to the ‘bedroom tax’. The differences do need to be resolved, but there is also a clear route for that, endorsed by the UK Prime Minister in his Aberdeen speech as well as other party leaders: an early process of cross-party negotiations, leading to a white paper by November 2014, publication of draft legislation in early 2015, followed by incorporation into manifestoes for the May 2015 general election, which will give the mandate for delivery of them. That level of political commitment is not easily ducked – and ironically it is perhaps the Conservatives who have the greatest short-term political interest in securing their delivery.
It’s also untrue that these are last-minute proposals All these schemes have drawn on the work I have done with IPPR, and particularly Guy Lodge, through the Devo More project since late 2012. They reflect many months of work and careful analysis of the implications of further devolution, not just for Scotland but for other parts of the UK as well – they haven’t been suddenly ‘pulled out of a hat’.
Details of the key publications from Devo More can be found here, here and here (and there are posts about the financing paper here, the welfare one here and how the programme fits various political traditions here).
Second, it’s suggested that these proposals amount to ‘Devo max’. They don’t. This is usually a rather lazy shorthand from journalists or politicians who haven’t understood what is actually on the table. The extra-devolution schemes, or scheme, will substantially enhance the autonomy of a devolved Scotland within the UK. But the Scottish Parliament is already responsible for about 70 per cent of all public spending in Scotland. The Devo More proposals will take Scotland as close to home rule as is possible in a single state. They will deliver what Scots had clearly shown they’ve wanted for a decade or more – greater self-government in the Union – in a way that works with the interests of people in other parts of the UK, rather than against them.
Back in May, I gave a lecture at the University of Ulster’s Belfast campus about what might follow the vote in the Scottish referendum. I’m afraid I’ve only now had the chance to tidy that up for wider reading. It’s available on the Social Science Research Network here, or can be downloaded directly HERE. The lecture as a whole is somewhat lengthy (around 10,000 words), so this post picks out the key points.
Perhaps the most important and novel part of the lecture is the second one, where I map out what would follow a Yes vote – the sort of steps needed, particularly on the rUK side to tackle the many uncertainties that will follow. This is a separate issue from that of the strengths of each party in the negotiation, discussed HERE earlier in the week. This would call for a great deal of imaginative thinking, in the midst of a first-order constitutional crisis. In particular, it seems to me that:
- The negotiating process needs to move with all due speed, to preserve the democratic legitimacy of both rUK as well as an independent Scotland. There is no good reason for rUK to seek to prolong the process, and plenty of reasons for it not to.
- The 2015 UK General election presents grave problems for that – the time lost to campaigning in an election and briefing a possible incoming new government means it will be impossible to make a proper start in negotiations before June 2015, since even provisional agreements reached under the present government might lack support from the new one.
- One option – which appears to be gaining some support, particularly among Conservatives – is to postpone the 2015 election. But the present government has already been in office for 4½ years, and has no mandate to negotiate something so important to rUK as Scottish independence.
- A better option would therefore be to hold a general election early, before the end of 2014, so there was both certainty about the composition of the UK/rUK Government and that government had a political mandate for independence negotiations. This would need approval by a two-thirds majority in the Commons, under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.
- Those negotiations will not be quick or straightforward – not just because of the difficulty or complexity of the issues to be considered, or how trade-offs might be made between issues, but because they are a matter for parliaments as well as governments. Parliaments will need to approve legislation giving effect to the final outcome, and in Westminster’s case also to authorise much of the necessary preparation on the Scottish side. There will need to be close co-operation between governments and their parliaments, both to ensure proper democratic control and accountability in the process and to simplify the process of approving the agreement at the end of it.
- A special UK Parliamentary committee, probably mostly meeting in private to preserve the confidentiality of proceedings and negotiating positions, would be an important way of helping to accomplish that.
- There would also be problems about the involvement of Scottish MPs and ministers in the independence process on the UK/rUK side. It would be contrary to the interests of the people of rUK for MPs sitting for Scottish seats to be involved in that process; as those negotiations affect first and foremost the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, only their representatives should be involved – whether in negotiating teams, Cabinet or Cabinet committees when considering independence-related matters, or when those are considered in Parliament. This is the West Lothian question on steroids.
- The need to ensure a broad consensus of support within rUK for the agreement also means that the Opposition – whoever it may be at the time – will need to be involved in the process. In particular, figures from the Opposition should be included in the rUK negotiating team, and party leaderships kept abreast of all issues under consideration. Again, while this complicates the process of the negotiations, it will simplify the process of approving and implementing an independence agreement.
Much of this sits oddly with usual British constitutional practice. But a Yes vote would trigger extraordinary times, and a need for extraordinary measures to cope with an unprecedented and very difficult situation. (Observant readers may note the considerable overlap between these recommendations and those of the Lords Constitution Committee’s report on Scottish independence: constitutional implications of the referendum – which was published after I gave the lecture. I do differ with the committee’s conclusions about the compostion of hte UK negotiating team and timing of the 2016 election, however.)
As far as a No vote is concerned, the lecture maps out the programme that was clearly being advanced by the Unionist parties in May, and advanced by the IPPR’s Devo More project: separate party policies, cross-party agreement on the key elements of that, early consideration of them following the referendum and implementation through endorsement in the 2015 election manifestoes. That process would clearly need to include the SNP as well as the pro-union parties, unless the SNP chose not to take part. Since I gave the lecture, the Scottish Conservatives have published their proposals in the form of the Strathclyde Commission report (and I have amended the text to reflect that). Subsequent developments have hardened the commitment of the parties both to the need for joint action and a clear timetable, as well as a Scottish-focussed process to agree the main features of ‘enhanced devolution’.
None of this is about simply ‘giving Scotland more powers’. It is about getting devolution right, so that it enables Scottish voters to have what they have wanted for more than a decade: extensive self-government within the Union. That will benefit other parts of the UK too, and not just by achieving a greater degree of constitutional stability. It will ensure that if Scottish taxpayers choose to spend more on devolved Scottish services, they bear the fiscal consequences of that; this would not be at the expense of taxpayers outwith Scotland.
There is, however, a clear need for that to be followed by a wider process covering the whole UK, and the best way to achieve that would be through a conference of members of the UK’s parliaments and legislatures; MPs, MSPs, AMs and MLAs. This is the idea underpinning the Strathclyde Commission’s recommendation for a ‘committee of the parliaments and assemblies’ . Through their election, these figures all clearly have a mandate and authority that other methods of selection would not give them.
Whatever happens on 18 September takes the UK into new and uncharted constitutional waters. It is important that everyone understands what is likely to follow, and what the world is likely to look like in a few months’ time.
This post also appears on the UK Constitutional Law Association blog, here.
Drawing on my Belfast lecture, I’ve a piece in the Guardian‘s ‘Comment is Free’ section on what would happen following a Yes vote in September’s Scottish independence referendum. I argue that the difficulties with a long transition are very great indeed, and that there are compelling reasons to ensure Scotland becomes independent by the time of the May 2015 UK general election if there is a Yes vote. That would be formidably difficult – not only are there are tough and complicated issues to be negotiated and resolved between the governments, but also legislation needs to be passed by both Scottish and UK Parliaments (and the UK Government would need to pass a paving bill too). But the problems caused by a longer transition are even more formidable, in my view.
The CiF piece can be found here.
I’m giving a public lecture at the University of Ulster’s Belfast campus on 15 May, on what happens following September’s Scottish referendum. It will take place in the Conor Lecture Theatre at 5 pm. The poster, with more details, can be downloaded here. Please email Zoë Lennon on firstname.lastname@example.org to confirm your attendance if you’d like to come.
The UK Government has now taken to using publicly a clear line about the independence referendum. A Yes vote, and Scottish independence, will lead to Scotland leaving the United Kingdom (despite semantic objections from the Yes side). That means an independent Scotland will also cease to be part of UK institutions. It can’t expect to be able to maintain participation in such bodies as the Bank of England (as emphasised by the row over currency union), the BBC (illustrated by Maria Miller’s comments in Oxford), and others. The European Union is another of these. Lord Wallace’s impending speech makes the point vividly clear. Expect to see the research councils added to the list over the coming weeks, as another body where an ‘independent’ Scotland would seek to share arrangements with rUK. There may be some hard choices to be made about a common travel area and its security implications. The ground for both of those has already been laid in the Scotland Analysis papers. And expect arguments about such detailed matters as the organ transplant ‘pool’, which currently operates on a UK-wide basis.
None of this should be a surprise. It’s been implicit in the UK Government’s position since the beginning of the Scotland Analysis programme. Remember that that kicked off with an analysis of the international legal issues, concluding that (r)UK would be the successor state in international law and Scotland would be a new state. The line of argument now emerging is simply the logical fulfilment of that.
This is also perfectly consistent with the strategy of the Unionist side in another respect. Since the May 2011 Scottish election result, and David Cameron’s prompt acceptance of the need for referendum and stipulation that it be ‘legal, clear and decisive’, the UK Government has pursued an excluded-middle Continue reading