Tag Archives: Scottish devolution

Our constitution, July 2012: Head of State

“Defining role and duties of Head of State as a ceremonial figurehead”

There are really only three questions to be asked about a Scottish Head of State, but they have very complicated answers.

The SNP have claimed they wish the Queen to remain as Head of State if the independence referendum goes Yes in autumn 2014. Certainly this is not a dealbreaker for me: I don’t know how I’ll vote, but whether or not Scotland becomes a republic is not a factor in that decision. Harking back to 1603, the SNP say they wish to dissolve the Union of Parliaments but not the Union of Crowns: a circumstance that applied to James VI and I, Charles I, Charles II, James II & VII, the joint and multi-numbered monarchs William III & II and Mary II, and Anne.

That the current monarch is both Elizabeth I of Scotland and Elizabeth II of England matters enough to some people that the Post Office carefully do not use the EIIR logo in Scotland because if they do, it gets vandalised. It’s not a non-issue.

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Our constitution, July 2012: public scrutiny of legislation

“Public scrutiny of legislation; right of committees to conduct hearings, pre-legislative consultation; active petition system; guaranteed rights of opposition.”

You may ask, why do we need to make such a point of this? This is what we already do in Scotland. Why would we stop?

“There are two things in the world you never want to let people see how you make ’em: laws and sausages.” – Leo McGarry, The West Wing, “Five Votes Down”.

I haven’t heard from Better Together voters who don’t like the idea of a constitution for Scotland.

But Yes Scotland voters who don’t like the idea of drafting a constitution for Scotland prior to the referendum or eve independence day, usually say something along the lines of: “Don’t you trust the SNP?” and when I say no, suggest that this is partisan. (Examples in comments at Our constitution: beyond yes and no and A New Claim of Right for Scotland.)

But I don’t trust any political party that far. Or any government. There is nothing special about the air of Scotland that makes politicians more anxious to have legislative work completely open to scrutiny: it’s just that the law requires it. The law that was passed at Westminster: the Scotland Act.

Public scrutiny of legislation

In the Scottish Parliament, this is a three-stage one-chamber process, described in Chapter 9 of the Parliament’s Standing Orders:

The introduction of a Bill in the Scottish Parliament (SP) is roughly equivalent to the First Reading stage of a Bill in the UK Parliament, but more is required of the member in charge of the Bill in the Scottish Parliament, in the sense of accompanying documents. This is in order to give the members of the committee more information.

Stage 1: After the committee has prepared the legislation, the Parliament will debate and vote on it and if agreed, it will proceed to Stage 2. The latter part of Stage 1 is equivalent to the Second Reading in the UK Parliament.
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Our constitution, July 2012: Treaties and war

Carl Sagan, Cosmos, 1980: War is murder writ large.

“Parliamentary control of treaties and war-making power, etc”

Today, a Higgs boson particle was discovered – a scientific discovery that confirms the Standard Model physics uses to explain the structure of the universe, first proposed by Peter Higgs of Edinburgh University. This is a great day, and not one I would have wanted to use to discuss treaties and war.

Carl Sagan, Cosmos, 1980

There is no other species on the Earth that does science. It is, so far, entirely a human invention, evolved by natural selection in the cerebral cortex for one simple reason: it works. It is not perfect. It can be misused. It is only a tool. But it is by far the best tool we have, self-correcting, ongoing, applicable to everything. It has two rules. First: there are no sacred truths; all assumptions must be critically examined; arguments from authority are worthless. Second: whatever is inconsistent with the facts must be discarded or revised. We must understand the Cosmos as it is and not confuse how it is with how we wish it to be.

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Our constitution, July 2012: Parliamentary privileges

“Protection of Parliamentary privileges, election of Presiding Officer, etc”

In April 2011, Ryan Giggs’s lawyers managed to convince a judge that Giggs’s girlfriend had had an affair with him for six months with intention of blackmailing him, and so ought not to be allowed to name Ryan Giggs in any interview, nor ought the UK media to be allowed to publish this, and the judge granted a superinjunction, which of course attracted the intention among the vast majority who didn’t care who Giggs was having an affair with. On 22nd May the Sunday Herald took advantage of its ambiguous position as a Scottish newspaper to identify Giggs to anyone who’d been following the story… but on 23rd May he was named in the House of Commons under Parliamentary privilege by John Hemming. The woman who’d been falsely accused of blackmail went on to clear her name in court, and the judge then suggested with remarkable meiosis that “There is no longer any point in maintaining the anonymity” though the gagging order wasn’t dropped until February this year.

Because of this incident, and because of the other more justly famous incident in the precursor to Leveson, when in November 2011 Tom Watson told James Murdoch that “You must be the first mafia boss in history who didn’t know he was running a criminal enterprise” probably what most people know about “Parliamentary privilege” is that an MP speaking in the House of Commons can say literally anything and cannot be prosecuted for defamation or for breaking a superinjunction.
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Our constitution, July 2012: Fixed term parliaments

“Fixed term, four year Parliaments: dissolution only if government cannot be formed or if Parliament votes for its own dissolution by a two-third majority.”

This is a part of the Constitution that would probably pass with least discussion. Fixed-term Parliaments are mandated in a devolved Scotland by the 1998 Act, and it is broadly agreed in constitutional democracies outside the UK that the power to dissolve Parliament and set the date for the next General Election is not something that should be under the control of the government of the day: it’s one of the powers of the Crown that accrues to the Prime Minister in the UK’s decidedly unwritten Constitution.

Margaret Thatcher used it in May 1983 to call a General Election two years early on the feelgood factor from the Falklands War: John Major used it to not call a General Election that he knew he wouldn’t win until literally the very last minute, April 1997 (and so did Gordon Brown in May 2010, despite Tony Blair’s having set the example of calling an election every four years). David Cameron will probably do the same, unless he starts a small war somewhere for electoral good value.

Looking back at the old Scottish Parliament, it was of course no more representative of the people then the old English Parliament: the Three Estates of the old Scottish Parliament (the lordis of counsall and sessioun) were the prelates (the bishops and abbots: the Catholics were removed in 1567, the Protestants removed in 1688); the lay tenants-in-chief or parliamentary peers (comprising three degrees of nobility: dukes, earls, and lairds – a laird or “lord of parliament” would have been the owner of a landed estate which was not part of a village or town or royal burgh); and the Burgh Commissioners elected by the royal burghs. From 1592 onwards there were also Shire Commissioners, selected by the lairds of the shire, and from 1603, royal office holders: I think the Universities also had parliamentary representation, but I don’t know how that worked. The three Representation of the People Acts in 1832 for England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, were the first steps towards making Parliament democratically representative.

The Parliament of Scotland was always unicameral and the collective term used for the members was traditionally the Thrie Estaitis even when there seem to have been four or five. (Mostly from A Short History of the Scottish Parliament.) The representatives from the Royal Burghs were the largest estate within the Parliament, and the 1707 Act of Union specified: “That the Rights and Privileges of the Royal Boroughs in Scotland as they now are Do Remain entire after the Union and notwithstanding thereof”.
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Our constitution, July 2012: independence and devolution

I decided in at the end of June to do a series of posts through July on my thoughts about a Scottish Constitution, using as a framework an excellent summary I was given at A state fit for the 21st Century.

I am not a lawyer. I am not employed by otherwise connected with or speaking on behalf of the Constitutional Commission. I welcome objections, caveats, better-informed comments clarifying or correcting any misunderstandings or mistakes I’ve made, references to other sources of information, and if you start blogging about this too, links to other blogposts.

As for the independence referendum – I’m undecided. As yet neither Yes Scotland nor Better Together have particularly convinced me. I don’t know how I’ll vote in autumn 2014. I’d like a campaign for a constitution to be independent of either campaign, and not tied to any party.

Aim:

“To establish the Scottish State as a stable, effective parliamentary democracy that upholds fundamental rights and serves the common-weal of the people.”

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Dear Unionist Politicians, Stop Messing Us About

As we begin the 14 weeks serious thinking / talking about the #indyref consultation (your replies in by 11th May) there is one thing I can say with absolute certainty:

Before all this stushie started, before David Cameron jumped in with both feet and Ed Miliband for some reason decided to join him, before Douglas Alexander was a vile little bully to Nicola Sturgeon, before the Unionists of Westminster and their tabloid bedfellows started spreading stories about how Scotland just would not be able to survive without piggybacking on England, before the leaders of the parties at Westminster started to complain that they didn’t see why the Scottish referendum should be run from Holyrood, before the faked-up story about Spain veto’ing Scotland’s EU membership, before, in short, Westminster decided it just had to mix in to what should be a Scottish discussion –

I was going to vote No to independence.

I’m not an SNP voter. I like devolution. I think it’s great we have the Scottish Parliament back. I believe that given we have a Union that’s lasted four hundred years it’s a shame to break it up over a bit of Toryism. I don’t trust Salmond.

But.

It’s late, I’m tired, I’m cross. What can I say: the thing that makes me most cross about your silly antics, your arrogant presumption that the democratic mandate means nothing, your failure to inform yourself of how Scottish legislation is written (it involves HUGE amounts of consultation, guys, HUGE) and your constant wearying boring simplifying trying to portray this as a High Noon standoff between Alex Salmond and David Cameron, oh and that you think fit to lecture the Scots on how we should do things without ever bothering to do a little bit of research and find out HOW we do things ALREADY, and omg, comparing Salmond to Mugabe, I don’t like Alex Salmond but that is just ridiculous – Guys, white English millionaire dudes, the thing that makes me most mad at you –

You’ve very badly made me want to vote Yes to independence just to get shut of you idiots.

And I do not want to have my vote on such an important issue motivated by such an essentially trivial expression of rage at a prating parcel of absolute ignorance. I really don’t.

So please. With all due respect. With anything you damn well please. Is it too much to ask? We’ve got 14 weeks now to respond to this consultation, it’s open to each of you to respond to it too if you feel like it, would you all please just SHUT UP? We’ve got serious business to do here.

Stop messing us about.

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Sense and Worth: Burns Night and Peter Tatchell Day

One hundred and ninety-three years apart, Robert Burns and Peter Tatchell share the same birthday, 25th January. Today Alex Salmond announces the launch of the consultation for the independence referendum, but let’s talk about Tatchell and Burns, first.

[Update, 14:49 – the independence consultation is now live, and will be open till 11th May 2012 – 14 weeks.]

Peter Tatchell Day

You are maddening.
You are threatening.
You are insanely brave.
A Poem For Peter Tatchell, By Stephen Fry

Peter Tatchell was born in 1952, in Australia. He’s been an activist for human rights for nearly his entire life, beginning at school, where he campaigned to set up a setting up a scholarship scheme for Aboriginal pupils, and to abolish the death penalty. He came to the UK in 1971, and joined the Gay Liberation Front. Over the four decades since then, his campaigning activities have ranged from sit-ins in pubs that refused to serve “poofs” to attempting to arrest Robert Mugabe for torture – during which he was beaten unconscious by Mugabe’s bodyguards. He’s marched with Moscow Pride and stood for by-elections (once, ironically, losing to a closety bisexual Liberal candidate because the Liberal party went all-out in homophobic attacks on Tatchell): he has always stood up for equality and human rights, wherever he thought it right and at considerable personal cost.
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