A week’s a long time in politics

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This blog looks at how the political horizon has shifted one week on from the UK general election and explores what the developments mean for Scotland and the UK constitutionally.

A second independence referendum?

Immediately following the election, the First Minister indicated that she would make a request for a Section 30 Order before Christmas. The SNP have said that winning 48 of Scotland’s 59 seats provides them with an “unarguable” mandate to call for a second independence referendum.

The Scottish Conservatives have argued that the 2014 referendum should remain “a once in a generation event” and that the SNP should focus on public services rather than the constitution. Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, stated that the SNP:

“should concentrate on improving Scotland’s hospitals and schools rather than trying to re-run an independence referendum they promised would be a once in a generation event”.

The First Minister has acknowledged that not everyone who voted for the SNP at last week’s general election can be said to support independence, but that the choice over Scotland’s future should be put to the people of Scotland in a referendum.

To that end, on 19 December 2019, the Scottish Government published a paper ‘Scotland’s Right to Choose: Putting Scotland’s Future in Scotland’s Hands’.  Launching the paper, the First Minister said:

“the Scottish Government has a clear democratic mandate to offer people a choice on that future in an independence referendum, and the UK Government has a democratic duty to recognise that. Last week’s General Election has only strengthened that mandate.”

The publication of ‘Scotland’s Right to Choose’ coincided with the Scottish Government’s call for the “UK Government to negotiate and agree the transfer of power that would put beyond doubt the Scottish Parliament’s right to legislate for a referendum on independence.”

Scotland’s Right to Choose: Putting Scotland’s Future in Scotland’s Hands

The paper, in the First Minister’s words, sets out “the constitutional and democratic case for Scotland” having the choice on its future. A choice which:

“is rooted in the principle of self-determination, in the material change of circumstances since the 2014 exercise of that right, and in the democratic mandate that exists for offering the choice afresh.”

 The Scottish Government’s paper sets out:

  • what it believes to be its mandate after the EU referendum;
  • its view on why it deems that there has been a material change of circumstance since the 2014 independence referendum, and
  • some background on how the referendum of 2014 was provided for.

The paper also includes a timeline of Scotland’s ‘constitutional story to date’. The timeline begins in the 1100s with Kind David I and ‘the emergence of Scottish nationhood’.

Draft legislation, which would require to be UK Parliament legislation, also forms part of the paper at Annex B. The draft legislation suggests various amendments to the Scotland Act 1998, including a clause on ‘Scotland’s right to self-determination’.

The Scottish Government explains that this provision would:

“place in statute a recognition of the principle set out in the Claim of Right 1989: that it is for the people of Scotland to decide the form of government best suited to their needs.”

The second suggested addition to the Scotland Act is a provision to allow the Scottish Parliament to hold an independence referendum. The Scottish Government’s suggested clause is set out below. Its effect would be to make clear that the reservations at Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act 1998 do not include the holding of a referendum on Scottish independence. It could be introduced by a Section 30 Order or by an Act of the UK Parliament.

The third legislative provision proposed by the Scottish Government is a further amendment to the Scotland Act 1998 which would place a duty on the Scottish Government and the UK Government to cooperate“with a view to securing that the decision of the people of Scotland that Scotland should become an independent State is given effect to as quickly, fairly and effectively as possible.” The provision also extends legislative and executive competence to allow for ‘independence day’ planning – thus allowing the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament to lead preparations. This third set of provisions would only be commenced in the event that there was a vote in favour of Scotland becoming independent.

Referendums (Scotland) Bill

On 19 December 2019, the Parliament considered the Referendums (Scotland) Bill at stage 3. The Bill’s passage through Parliament was made on an accelerated timetable. It was introduced in the Parliament on 28 May 2019.

The Bill proposes a legislative framework for referendums held in Scotland under an Act of the Scottish Parliament. The framework sets out the franchise and arrangements for voting; the conduct of the poll and counts, and the rules which campaigners must abide by.

As introduced, the Bill provided a power for Scottish Ministers to provide for a referendum by secondary legislation. This provision was removed at stage 2, meaning that any future referendum would need to be held under an Act of the Scottish Parliament.

At stage 1 the SNP and Green Party supported the Bill, with the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats voting against it. At the final stage 3 vote, the Parliament passed the Bill by 68 votes to 54. The SNP and the Greens supported the Bill. The Conservatives, the majority of Labour members and the Liberal Democrats opposed it. Two members abstained from the vote.

Queen’s speech

After the general election campaign, it was no surprise that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and the NHS dominated the Queen’s speech. In setting out the UK Government’s priorities and the legislative agenda of the UK Parliament, the Queen announced that 30 Bills were forthcoming, seven of which related to the UK leaving the EU.

The commitment on the NHS was to enshrine in law a commitment to health service funding, with an extra £33.9 billion per year by 2023-24.

Other key announcements included:

  • a commitment to move to a points-based immigration system;
  • a new visa to allow the applications of those coming to the UK to work in the health service to be fast tracked;
  • the repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (2011). The repeal of this Act would result in UK general elections being called on the advice of the Prime Minister, but without the consent of MPs.

On 19 December, the Scottish Government indicated, in response to a parliamentary question, that 14 of the 30 bills announced in the Queen’s speech were expected to require legislative consent from the Scottish Parliament. These were indicated as:

  • Agriculture Bill
  • Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill
  • Birmingham Commonwealth Games Bill
  • Broadband legislation
  • Building Safety Bill
  • Counter Terrorism (Sentencing and Release) Bill
  • Domestic Abuse Bill
  • Environment Bill
  • European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill
  • Fisheries Bill
  • Immigration and Social Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill
  • Private International Law (Implementation of Agreements) Bill
  • Sentencing (Pre-consolidation Amendments) Bill
  • Trade Bill

The Withdrawal Agreement Bill

The European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill 2019 is the legislation which will turn the Withdrawal Agreement (which is a draft international treaty) into UK law thereby allowing the UK Government to ratify it.

The European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill will have its second reading in the House of Commons on 20 December.

SPICe produced a briefing on the updated Withdrawal Agreement on 28 October 2019.

A briefing on the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill will be published early in 2020.

Sarah Atherton, SPICe research