…or a post where I really want you to read the footnotes.
My brother has put a poster up on my wall. I don’t like it, but if I take it down he’s just going to moan. So I probably won’t take it down. But you see, he doesn’t trust me – it’s against his very nature to trust me, so he wants to make sure that I can’t take it down. So, he’s put sticky tape on the poster to attach it to the wall. But he’s not really thought this through. Sure, it seems safer, but really it’s not too much of a barrier – if I want to take the poster off, I just have to take the tape off as well. Simple. Tonight, the House of Commons voted on a similar problem.
It’s the cornerstone of British Constitutionalism that the Westminster Parliament is Sovereign.¹ This means it can make and unmake any law it so chooses. The logical extension of this is that Parliament cannot bind itself. It could make a law, but a future Parliament (or indeed, the same Parliament later on) could then repeal it. Parliament, therefore, cannot permanently limit its own sovereignty – but could temporarily deny it.
The Scotland Bill currently going through Westminster kind of goes against the grain. Section 1 of the Scotland Act 1998 states (rather famously):
There shall be a Scottish Parliament.
The new Scotland Bill has since it was a glint in the draftsman’s eye, has sought to amend the Scotland Act to contain a section 1A, reading:
A Scottish Parliament is recognised as a permanent part of the United Kingdom’s constitutional arrangements.
This, as many pointed out at the time, is a pointless provision that doesn’t do anything. The mere fact that the Scottish Parliament is created is sufficient and all that can protect its existence. Legally, Westminster could repeal the Scotland Act 1998 and remove the Scottish Parliament, but politically, they never ever would. In reality, there is a far more powerful political safeguard than the UK Constitution could ever provide.
If Westminster did, at some point in the future, decide that it wanted to ditch the Scottish Parliament, this clause wouldn’t stop it. All Parliament would have to do is, instead of repealing just Section 1, it would repeal Section 1A then Section 1. It’d be bad and wrong, but the government had the votes to do one, it will have the votes to do the other – it is no barrier at all. Section 1A is sticky tape. But the proposed Section 1A also still exists.
The SNP proposed an amendment to the Scotland Bill (which failed) which would insert the following:
(1A) The Scottish Parliament is a permanent part of the United Kingdom’s constitution.
(1B) Subsection (1) or (1A) may be repealed only if—
(a) the Scottish Parliament has consented to the proposed
(b) a referendum has been held in Scotland on the proposed
repeal and a majority of those voting at the referendum
have consented to it.
It gives some degree of additional protection in that it requires a popular referendum – but it is equally redundant. Say a Government did want to get rid of the Scottish Parliament. The doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty means that Parliament can legitimately repeal section 1B, before going on to abolish the Parliament. Instead of having to repeal 1 section (as it would just now), or 2 (if the Scotland Bill as it stands passes), it would have to repeal 3, and again, if the Government has enough support to repeal one section, it will have the support to repeal them all.
In short, the SNP’s amendment was just as in ineffectual as the proposal it sought to replace. Yes, if there were attempts to remove the referendum requirement from the Scotland Act, we would know that the Government were on manoeuvres – but we would know that equally well, and with the same effect, if they attempted to repeal the Parliament itself.²
So the numerous MPs and others that were ‘outraged’ that the government voted against making the Scottish Parliament ‘permanent’ are one of two things. They are either constitutional unaware, or they are attempting to make a mountain out of a very small wormhole (and, let’s be honest, probably succeeding). Either way, even if the Scottish Parliament isn’t legally permanent, the political force protecting it is too great – it won’t be going anywhere.
¹ Yes, it is a British principle. The (im)famous statement that Parliamentary Sovereignty is a “…distinctly English principle which has no counterpart in Scottish Constitutional Law” from MacCormick v Lord Advocate 1953 SC 396 at 411 is obiter, and not an established statement of the law.
² Whether this is possible now is, believe it or not, a (seldom asked) question. In the really important case of AXA General Insurance v Scottish Ministers and Others [ UKSC 46 Lord Hope (the Scottish Deputy President of the UKSC at the time) said that the Scottish Parliament was a “self-standing democratically elected legislature” . This seems to suggest that, even if the Scottland Act was repealed, the Scottish Parliament could continue because it is “self-standing”. Quite what Lord Hope was thinking when he said this I don’t know – and I’ve bottled out of my only opportunity to ask him so far. I hope one day I will.