Scottish Independence Referendum

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Scottish Independence Referendum

The Parliamentary Information Office is, with constitutional pundits generally,
following closely the progress of the Scottish National Party's attempts to hold a
referendum on Scottish independence.

In a report published today, Tuesday 7 August 2012, the House of Commons Scottish Affairs
Select Committee says the overwhelming weight of evidence shows that the Scottish
Parliament cannot presently legislate to hold a referendum on separation, and that
agreement should be reached between Holyrood and Westminster to create the necessary
legal powers. Otherwise Scotland risks indefinite legal and political wrangling and
uncertainty over its future.

In its manifesto for the 2007 Scottish Parliament election, the SNP pledged to hold an
independence referendum by 2010. After winning the election, the SNP-controlled Scottish
Government published a White Paper entitled Choosing Scotland's Future, which outlined
options for the future of Scotland, including independence.

In August 2009, the SNP announced that the Referendum (Scotland) Bill 2010 would be part
of its third legislative programme for 2009-10, which would detail the question and conduct of
a possible referendum on the issue of independence. The Bill was to be published on 25
January 2010 (Burns Night), with the referendum proposed for on or around 30 November
2010 (St. Andrew's Day). The Bill was not expected to be passed, because of the SNP's
status as a minority government, and the opposition of all the major parties in the
Parliament. In September 2010, the Scottish Government announced that no referendum
would occur before the 2011 elections.

Following the SNP's victory in the 2011 election which gave the party an overall majority in
the Scottish Parliament, First Minister Alex Salmond stated his desire to hold a referendum
"in the second half of the parliament" which would place it in 2014 or 2015.

Then in January 2012, politicians clashed over whether the Scottish Parliament has the
power to hold a referendum on independence and Scotland can only separate from the UK if
the Scottish people make that decision in a referendum.

Today the Select Committee says any such referendum must have an unchallengeable legal
and moral basis, to avoid delays and challenges to the legitimacy of the process and its
result. The Scottish Parliament can legislate only on devolved matters, and the Union
between Scotland and England is a reserved matter.
The Scottish Government has argued that Holyrood is legally competent to set up a
referendum but the Committee can find no evidence for this and the Scottish Government
has provided no legal justification for this view. Given that it is clear that the result of a
referendum will decide Scotland's position, in or out of the Union, it must have an
unchallengeable legal and moral basis. It cannot be described as simply "advisory".
The Committee says any attempt to conduct a referendum on a dubious legal basis would
inevitably be challenged in the courts. This could take years to be resolved and would lead
to even further damaging uncertainty about Scotland's future. No-one should be allowed to
use legal wrangles to put off a referendum even longer than is currently planned. It is vital
both that any referendum must be conducted on a sound legal footing and that it takes place
within an appropriate time-scale.

The Committee says the best way to ensure a sound legal basis for the referendum is for the
UK and Scottish Governments and Parliaments to agree the specific detail of an order under
section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998 to give the Scottish Parliament power to conduct a
referendum. The committee believes that any Section 30 order proposed by the Government
should be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by the Scottish Affairs Committee and to
approval by all of Scotland's MPs before being proceeded with.
The Committee says it is "highly desirable" that both Governments and both Parliaments
should agree the legislative and organisational form of any referendum, to reduce the scope
for either side of the argument to claim afterwards that the process was in any way improper
or unfair. However, this should not be used to allow those who anticipate being defeated to
stall or derail the process.
Chair of the Committee Ian Davidson MP said:
"With a consensus for a referendum on Separation, it is essential that any ballot is held on
an unchallengeable legal and moral basis.
"The Labour Government's referendum in 1997 created the Scottish Parliament and
determined that MPs should have control of further constitutional change. These decisions
were made by the Scottish people.
"It is clear from our evidence that the Scottish Parliament has no powers to hold either a
binding or an advisory referendum on constitutional change. It is also clear that any attempt
to do so would result in legal disputes and delay.
"Thus we believe the best way to proceed is for the Government to propose a detailed and
specific Section 30 notice, giving the Scottish Parliament powers to conduct a referendum on
Separation, and that this S30 notice should be subject to a scrutiny process by the Scottish
Affairs Committee and approval by Scotland's MPs.
"Since the forthcoming referendum will settle the question of Separation for a generation it is
important that it takes place legally, speedily and honestly. While delay may be attractive to
those anticipating defeat, any effort to stall or derail the process will not be in Scotland's best
interest. Continued uncertainty will neither protect nor create jobs nor will it enhance public
The Government should therefore come forward with a proposed Section 30 notice as
quickly as possible."
The Parliamentary Information Office will watch developments with considerable interest and
continue to report on this and other constitutional issues.