Category Archives: Constitutional corner
Anyone humphing about the First Minister going to London to tell us that we could have a written constitution in an independent Scotland and to pose suggestions about what such a document might contain is missing the point.
It’s all part of the staging as part of the narrative in the SNP’s part of the Yes campaign and suggests that at last, the party is getting to grips with its role in this crowded marketplace. While the day to day of progressing the process, as well as presenting the ever-growing reasons not to stay in the Union, sits firmly with Nicola Sturgeon as our Yes Minister, the First Minister is freed up to play fully the statesman role which he loves and performs so well. His is a big blank canvas on which to paint the vision for an independent Scotland.
As for the going to London bit, that’s about him going “abroad” to represent Scotland and her interests on a wider stage, reassuring nervous persuadables about post-independence concerns, such as borders and relationships. See, here is our leading politician going south scattering bon mots like rose petals and receiving a warm welcome. And they didn’t even ask to see his passport.
There was a lot to like, too, about the content of the First Minister’s speech. It didn’t seek to presume that the SNP would control the policy process, the idea of a written constitution wasn’t presented as a done deal, and it had a lot to offer in terms of what might be there, while pointing up neatly the difference and the potential benefits everyone living in Scotland might enjoy if they vote yes. Unlike currently, of course, which the First Minister wasn’t shy to hammer home, where with an unwritten constitution, rights are a moveable feast and citizenship is a concept predicated on the convention that people who live on these islands are subjects who will put up with what politicians serve up to them.
However, I’m not sure floating the idea of a written constitution as a possible rather than a probable or even, a definite outcome for independent Scotland is the right approach. It’s taken me a long time to see the importance of having such a touchstone in place for our country, even though I can identify with its benefits for addressing inequality and injustice. Now, I consider it an absolute essential. Without a rights based approach and such an approach being enshrined in founding legislation, as well as detail setting out the institutional infrastructure for our country, there is a risk that we end up exactly where we are now.
A written constitution is required to set out what kind of country we will be, how we will govern ourselves, how we will ensure that all our citizens are provided for and how we will realise our potential. Without it, we would be as subject to the vagaries and flim flam policy initiatives of politicians and political parties as we are now. If independent Scotland is to deliver a whole new way of being and doing, then our pathway and culture must be embedded from the start.
And I’m also sanguine about the process of preparing a written constitution suggested by the First Minister and followed through on by Andrew Wilson in this week’s Scotland on Sunday. The idea that “a cross-party commission of the best” should write our written constitution fills me with dread, for this process is too important to be left to the politicians, particularly if we want to use it to sweep away institutional hierarchies and vested interests.
If we are to use the opportunity of writing a constitution to create the beginnings of a better nation, then that process must be owned and driven by the public. And Iceland’s recent crowdsourcing experiment for new constitutional provisions demonstrates not only that this could be done but that it can be done, and rather successfully.
I don’t want politicians nor indeed, academics to disappear behind closed doors to come out months later brandishing a finished draft. No one will own or feel responsible for such a document. I want all of Scotland to feel part of the process and when they get to the end of it, feel that we, collectively, have produced a constitution which sets the tone for the years to come. This is not to suggest that the actual wording of a constitution should be determined by a committee of five million – we’d never get beyond the first line. But the general thrust of the content should be determined by the people.
Thus, my own preference would be for a written constitution which sets out the rights of the people – our fundamental human rights – as well as how the apparatus of the state might work. On the latter issue, for example, a key consideration is what type of legislature to have. Different options could be set out and people asked to vote for their preference. The result of that vote would bind how the drafters would proceed.
And on the issue of rights, as the First Minister suggested, we might want to go further than basic human rights such as the right to vote, right to freedom of association, right to liberty and create constitutional policy rights, covering matters such as education, housing and nuclear weapons. I’d like to see us enshrine the rights of children through the UNCRC in a written constitution, ensuring that children and young people have, for example, a right to play and to be treated equally under the law, as well as setting out things like the age of criminal responsibility, capacity and adulthood in our founding document. And I’d also like a commitment to gender equality enshrined in our constitution – starting over from an equal footing would do much to create a very different Scotland from the one in which we all currently live.
With his speech, the First Minister has signalled a vital shift in focus, that of starting to imagine the possible and as he puts it, the “why” of independence. It would be great if it kickstarted discussions all around the country – in workplaces, homes, clubs, pubs, on trains, buses and planes. What kind of Scotland would you like to live in and how could we provide for that in a written constitution? It’s only by taking such fundamental policy debates down to grassroots level and out of the hands of the parties and the politicians, that we will enable people to see what independence offers and persuade more of them to at least, start thinking about voting yes.
And if yes-supporting politicians want a role at this stage, they could press Better Together on why remaining in the UK and not having a written constitution guaranteeing our rights is in anyway better for us.
Anyone wanting to see some draft options for a written constitution, and samples from other countries, should visit the excellent Constitutional Commission’s website
On Tuesday morning, having had my fill of constitutional politics over the weekend at SNP conference, I decided to stop blogging on all things independence for a week or so. There are after all many other political and topical issues which get neglected – and some, believe it or not, of greater current import than what will happen two years’ hence. So, I tweeted this.
Before two SNP MSPs resigned the whip over the decision in the Great NATO Debate.
Before the Depute First Minister stood up in Parliament to announce, among other things, that she had commissioned specific legal advice on independent Scotland’s right (or otherwise) to continue or join the European Union.
Before someone remembered that the First Minister had been interviewed by Andrew Neil in March and appeared to suggest that such legal advice was already available to the Scottish Government.
Before Labour issued a press release accusing the FM of being a “bare-faced” liar. And before the FM was dragged back to the Parliamentary Chamber to explain himself.
Since then, the political chat has been of little else. And the debate on our constitutional future remains fixated on procedural matters of little interest to people in their daily lives. The big issue of substance – whether or not membership of the EU is desirable, either as part of the UK or if we go it alone, remains sidelined.
We are almost oblivious up here that this is fast becoming a key matter in UK politics. This week, Westminster debated the desirability of continuing EU membership for the UK in a move engineered by backbench Conservative MPs. There is an irony here in that by the time we get to independence, the UK itself might not be a member, or at least be negotiating its way out of membership. Some of the semantics dominating the constitutional debate might be moot by 2016.
As a fully paid up Europhile and indeed, advocate of European Union membership, all this little islander stuff worries me. I don’t get why others are so hostile to the idea and the reality of a strong, enduring and close economic, social and political union. The Tories, reverting to type, have signalled this issue as a key political one for them in the run up to the UK General Election in 2015. Two weeks ago, the Home Secretary Teresa May signalled intent to repatriate justice powers, conveniently ignoring the fact that such inter-European co-operation on terrorism, human trafficking, intelligence and policing is vital to our security and well-being. Without it and powers such as the European Arrest Warrant, we will be fighting organised crime in arms, drugs and human trade in particular, with one hand tied behind our backs. Tackling paedophilia and its cyber nature is one area where policing across states, without boundaries is absolutely essential.
Yet, they do appear to have tapped into a public mood of disenchantment with EU membership. The most recent Eurobarometer conducted in June 2012 found that almost as many people in the UK thought membership a bad thing as thought it a good thing (30% compared to 33% respectively). And when asked to cite the most important elements that make up European identity, the views of UK respondents differed from respondents across the EU, not just in content but also in enthusiasm.
Our distrust appears to be borne of ignorance, largely helped by an unwilling and disengaged UK media, which fails to report anything meaningful of what goes on over there in Brussels and Strasbourg. When they do report – as the Daily Mail and its ilk are wont to – the line is inherently negative and often ill and mis-informed. When asked in the Eurobarometer to say when the next European elections will be held, only 7% of UK respondents knew they would be in 2014 with over three-quarters saying they didn’t know the date, and 63% in the UK couldn’t name any European institutions. We know and care little of what goes on in our name across the water, it seems.
We do not have a Scottish breakdown for the Eurobarometer but public opinion here also appears to have shifted from generally positive to at best, lukewarm in terms of an independent Scotland being a member of the EU. One of the reasons might be that no one, in any party, has begun the process of explaining what membership means, what being independent outwith EU membership means, and indeed, how we as an independent country might arrive at either destination. And until the parties allow us to weigh up the options and look at the positives and negatives and decide for ourselves, we will remain none the wiser.
The No camp has a particular vested interest in keeping the matter of EU membership firmly on the process. Would an independent Scotland automatically assume membership with no changes to current budgetary arrangements and opt-outs, or would we have to apply with the conditions of adherence to Schengen and to join the Euro when we meet the criteria coming into play? For the No camp to seek to use the implications of having to apply afresh for membership to further scare monger the Scottish people into accepting the status quo is disingenuous. It ignores the very serious attempts going on down south to withdraw the UK wholesale from membership and also ignores the fact that with our resources, an independent Scotland would be welcomed into the EU with open arms. Spain might be blustering now, but it is hardly going to be in a dominant position politically to call the shots on this. One of the things which the EU does very well, which is rather alien to politics here, is compromise; ways are always found of squaring circles and accommodating difficult issues and disagreement. That’s the beauty of being in a collective – the small nations often have as much muscle and power as the big ones.
But to get to a place where we are able to weigh all this up, we need to get into the substantive debate about the implications of membership. Currently, we are stuck in second gear with the dominant political issue of the day being who sought advice on what and when. The parties might wish to stay where we are, forever revving our engines but going nowhere fast, but it will not enable the Scottish people to arrive at our chosen constitutional destination confident that we chose the correct route.
We need a debate here in Scotland on EU membership, both as a constituent part of the UK and as a potentially independent state. I know what I’d vote for in a referendum in either circumstance. What’s your view?
The march and rally for independence in early September was a remarkable occasion, not least for its feelgood factor. Normally, marches are held because folk are angry about something and want to demonstrate the depth and extent of their anger and their opposition. The anti-cuts marches to be held simultaneously in England, Wales and Scotland, organised by respective TUCs, are a case in point. Sadly, I won’t be on that one as it clashes with the SNP’s annual conference.
But the indie march was different. The overwhelming sentiments were positivity, optimism and a readying for the campaign ahead. What did it achieve and embody? I’ve struggled with this, so bear with me. One of the main plots in Tolkien’s Two Towers concerns the fate of Rohan. When the decision is taken to retreat to Helm’s Deep and prepare for battle, the call is made for help. But King Theoden does not know who will come: Gandalf sets out to find allies, Aragorn is feared dead, the Elves have turned their back on the world of men and Pippin and Merry are believed still to be in the clutches of Saraman’s henchmen. Allies seem few and far between and Theoden faces the prospect of defending his kingdom and people practically alone. But on the eve of battle, they come. Allies answer the call and come to show solidarity, to join forces and defeat the common enemy.
Jeff Duncan must have felt somewhat the same. He came up with the idea for a march and rally, pulled together a small and willing band to help organise it, and put out the call. Despite the fact that buses were being booked all over the country, he still did not know how many would come. Yet, come they did. From every part of Scotland, from every independence-supporting party, from families and communities with few party ties. They came together in solidarity, in support of a common cause, which for some, had been long buried.
I met people at that rally whom I hadn’t seen for years. Yes, the familiar faces were all there but so were the ones who opted out years ago, for very good reasons – to raise families, forge careers and just get on with life. To me, it was their presence which was the most significant and the most heartening.
Jeff Duncan has a masterful plan for his series of marches and rallies. This first one was a call to the faithful, to those who already believe and intend to vote yes, to come together, to draw strength from doing so and prepare for the campaign ahead. His aim is that the one in 2013 will be double the size as the ranks of yes voters grow and the one in 2014? Well, the intention is to show a nation on the march to self-determination.
And already, before the ink is even dry on yesterday’s historic agreement, people are on the move. Those who might have preferred to vote for more powers – the nearly there constitutional option – are shifting towards a yes for full independence. A group of prominent business people who had previously supported devo-plus or dev-max threw their votes in with the yes camp on Sunday. The nascent group, Labour for Independence, is preparing to hold its first annual gathering: yesterday, I heard of two local Labour and trade union activists who have already indicated they want to work for a yes vote. Both names surprised me. On Sunday, I spoke to two others whose views I had never known but who could loosely be defined as devolutionists who are now inclined towards full independence. Women for Independence launched its online survey as part of its listening exercise the same day, and even allowing for yes women and men in disguise, for the survey to generate 250 responses in little over 24 hours is pretty remarkable. And even Alex Massie, doughty defender of the Union, posited in a blogpost that he might be persuaded to vote yes if independence could promise better for Scotland’s children. His piece on how education under devolution has failed to close the inequality gap is well worth a read.
What it shows is that – despite all my gnashing and wailing about the people’s choice being removed from the debate – that a single question, yes or no, is focusing minds and creating a clear choice. And it also suggests that the Unionists have got it all wrong. Admittedly, there are two long years of claim and counter-claim to go: we might all decide at the end of it to opt out, if the debate does not provide the substance we seek. But it does seem that given the choice of no change or more change than might feel comfortable, people who want some change are sticking or twisting. Some are waiting to be persuaded – there are high hopes being placed on the prospectus promised in the Scottish Government’s white paper which I fear might be misplaced – while others are already taking or considering a leap of faith.
I have no doubt that independence will win the day when we come to vote in 2014. Yes Scotland will spend the next two years offering hope, positivity and optimism, when all around our public services are being scythed by austerity cuts, our economy is stalling and unemployment among key voter groups – women, young people and over 50s – will have become endemic. What exactly is the Better Together camp going to be able to claim is better about staying together?
Clearly, they take succour from recent polls, but the TNS-BMRB one this month bemused me. Lallands Peat Worrier has conducted his usual laser-like analysis of the findings, including a peek behind the headline finding that support for independence has fallen to 28%. This decline is not substantiated by the age-related findings, which show in every single age group but the 18 – 24s, fewer people intending to vote no and more people intending to vote yes. And in that younger age group, while the level of no voters stays the same, there has been a big leap in potential yes voters from the don’t knows. Clearly, there are still significantly more no voters than yes ones, but in most age groups, a combined yes-don’t know camp outweighs the no voters alone. This poll shows a shift since it was last conducted in July; it is not yet a significant shift, but it does signal that a move is on. At this stage, two years out, the yes camp can be quietly satisfied that the direction of travel in most age groups is towards them.
Next month, Yes Scotland local campaigns will start springing up. The call has gone out, inviting people to get involved in their community. The Yes Ambassadors who have organised these inaugural campaign meetings do not know who will come. There are some they expect to turn up, but I am certain there will also be more than a few unknowns and even, some surprises.
It’s started: we are a nation on the move. Already the constitutional plates are shifting in favour of a yes vote and the campaign will only continue to grow in breadth and strength over the next year. The 2013 independence march and rally will indeed show by just how much, though we might have to wait until 2014 for the Ents to join us.