The case that equality within the Union requires Scotland to have a permanent power to hold a legally binding independence referendum

The Smith Commission report has come – can a permanent s 30 order be far behind? (With apologies to “Ode to the West Wind” by P B Shelley(1).)

Paragraph 18 of the report reads: “It is agreed that nothing in this report prevents Scotland becoming an independent country in the future should the people of Scotland so choose.”(2)

Paragraph 18 resonates with elements of the UK Government’s white paper, Scotland in the Union: a partnership for good, presented to Parliament in 1993 by the then Secretary of State for Scotland, now the Rt Hon Lord Lang of Monkton, DL. In his foreword to the white paper, the then Prime Minister John Major stated as to the Union: “That Union is almost 300 years old. As I have said before, no nation could be held irrevocably in a Union against its will.”

The white paper went on to assert at para 10.3: “And if the Union is to flourish in the future a more concerted recognition of Scotland’s status as a nation will be necessary. It should be a mark of Scotland’s self-confidence in her own status as a nation that she shares her sovereignty with the other parts of the United Kingdom. But the willingness to share that sovereignty must never be taken for granted.”(3)

Neither para 18 of the Smith Commission report nor the 1993 white paper elaborates on the mechanism by which the “will” or “choice” of the Scottish people is to be expressed.

The issue as to whether the empowerment provided in 2013 under the s 30 order in respect of the 2014 referendum should be made permanent had itself been raised during the course of the deliberations of the Smith Commission.(4)

Partnership and symmetry

John Major’s statement as to the 1707 Union that “no nation could be held irrevocably in a Union against its will” is of course applicable from a jurisprudential point of view to England just as much as to Scotland. An attempt, supported by the Whigs but opposed by the Tories, to bring the Union to an end through Parliament, only narrowly failed in 1713.(5)

Although perhaps hypothetical nowadays from a political point of view, jurisprudential analysis requires one to consider what would be the position should it be desired to hold a referendum in England (including Wales for these purposes) with a view to securing England’s independence from Scotland. The topic becomes less purely theoretical when one considers that a vote to provide for an “in-out” EU referendum could be carried in the UK Parliament whether or not a majority of MPs representing Scotland – or indeed any MPs from Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish constituencies – were in favour. A close vote to retain EU membership in such a referendum in which, for example, a majority of the votes within Scotland were perceived to have tipped the balance in favour of remaining within the EU, could cause campaigners in favour of leaving the EU to come to regard England’s continuance of the Union with Scotland as a brake on their ambition.

English votes on English issues

One here enters realms which bring to mind by analogy the so-called “West Lothian question”.(6) The thinking behind the UK Government’s asymmetrical devolution programme which led to the establishment of the Welsh Assembly and the Parliament of Scotland emerges inter alia from evidence given by the then Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, to the Commons Justice Committee inquiry “Devolution: a decade on”, which reported in May 2009.(7)

In his evidence to the committee on 13 May 2008, Jack Straw stated at Q682: “The prior point about the so-called 'West Lothian question' is whether or not you accept that the United Kingdom's makeup in terms of its component parts is asymmetrical because of the huge dominance of England in terms of resources and of population and actually the resilience of its economy as well. If you do as I do and accept that, in the end, English Members can determine anything in the Union and, if we got together, we could completely dominate the Union if we wished, if we had a common purpose, as it were, against Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”(8)

What one may derive from the above, applying it to the question as to the power to hold an English referendum on the Union (or for that matter a UK referendum on the EU), is that England (with Wales), as Scotland’s partner in the Union, has never required to be equipped with a specific legal mechanism for holding a referendum on leaving the Union. Whereas Scotland’s block of MPs could always be outvoted in the House of Commons no matter the issue, and whether the issue were “English” or “Scottish”, MPs representing English constituencies could outvote the MPs of all the other component parts of the UK in the Parliament at Westminster.

Fairness and the eye of the beholder

Devolution has nevertheless had the effect of reducing the number of Scots issues on which MPs representing English (and Welsh and Northern Irish) constituencies may vote. Meanwhile para 22 of the Smith Commission report recommends that the Sewel convention be put on a statutory footing.

The complaint of unfairness to England which has led to renewed calls for “English votes on English issues” arises through the continuance of Scots MPs remaining eligible to vote on “English” issues where such issues affecting Scotland have been devolved to the Scots Parliament. A mirror issue in turn arises. If there is indeed unfairness to England in such circumstances, how is one to view MPs representing English (Welsh/Northern Irish) constituencies being eligible to vote (and outvote MPs representing Scots constituencies) on Scots issues which remain reserved to the UK Parliament? The McKay Commission report does in fact identify “best practice for the UK Government to consult the devolved administrations before legislating on these topics”.(9)

We appear to be confronted with an anomaly

One is left at the end of the day with a rather anomalous situation as to the referendum power.

First, the UK Government asserted through its white paper in 1993 that Scotland is a sovereign nation in a continuing Union and could not be held in the Union against its will.

Secondly, the Smith Commission has affirmed that there is nothing to stop the people of Scotland choosing that Scotland should become an independent country.

Thirdly, Scotland’s partner in the Union is by virtue of its numerical superiority able, should it wish, to provide for an English (and Welsh) referendum on the Union without need of any of the votes of the members of the UK Parliament for Scots constituencies (or those of Wales and Northern Ireland either). In fact MPs from English constituencies could simply vote through legislation in the UK Parliament repealing the Acts of Union without holding a referendum at all.

Fourthly, and despite Scotland and its people’s supposed entitlement not to be kept in the Union against its or their will, its Parliament is treated at present as dependent on the UK Government and Parliament, empowering it on an ad hoc basis, on request from the Scottish Government, to legislate for a legally binding referendum.

Fifthly, it may be noted that statutory provision is already made for a legally binding referendum in Northern Ireland under s 1(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which states that: “It is hereby declared that Northern Ireland in its entirety remains part of the United Kingdom and shall not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll held for the purposes of this section in accordance with Schedule 1.”(10)

An unequal “partnership”

It is difficult jurisprudentially to justify a situation as between “partners” in which the means to bring the Union to an end are available continuously per se to one partner, England, through its dominance of the UK Parliament, but are only available on an ad hoc basis to the other partner, Scotland, and with its “partner’s” permission.

This is effectively a legal imbalance which is capable of being perceived as constituting an unfairness which could, if the UK Government wished to demonstrate continued adherence to the spirit of the 1993 white paper, easily be rectified (whether through the ongoing process related to the Smith Commission or otherwise).

The above discussion provides a useful context within which to consider the complaint as to unfairness to England. Devolution has not reduced the built-in majority which MPs representing English constituencies continue to hold in the UK Parliament. Indeed it was as a result of the establishment of the Scottish Parliament that as from the UK general election of 2005, the number of MPs at Westminster representing Scots constituencies was reduced from 72 to 59.(11)

One can readily accept that the ideal of seeking to improve constitutional structures is to be applauded. Care has to be taken however to ensure that any such reforms to the asymmetric UK constitution as may be introduced, may not be perceived to have been so introduced merely or mainly to further party political gain on the one hand or detriment on the other.

The strength of political parties may wax and wane, but constitutional principle should prevail over the interests of political parties, which must operate within constitutional structures. The latest House of Commons Library Note of 4 December 2014 on “England, Scotland, Wales: MPs and voting in the House of Commons”(12) contains inter alia interesting information as to the composition of governing parliamentary parties since 1945 and voting patterns but it should not be overlooked that these are matters of essentially transient political history only.


Whatever the politics of the matter overall, in so far as the permanent referendum power is concerned, the advantages of legal certainty and of jurisprudential equality as between partners combine to form a logical and coherent case for taking remedial action. Provision could thus be made, pursuant to s 30 of the Scotland Act 1998, that the holding of a referendum on the independence of Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom was not in future to be reserved. A Scotland Act 1998 (Modification of Schedule 5) Order, ensuring that the Parliament of Scotland was empowered to legislate whenever it might see fit for a legally binding referendum upon independence, could be made accordingly.(13) In this way statements as to the “will” or “choice” of the Scottish people would be given meaning of a legal rather than of a purely theoretical nature, and any perception of an unfair imbalance as between the Union partners on this topic removed.


(1) “Ode to the West Wind”, by P B Shelley, may be accessed at:
(2) The full report may be accessed at:
The House of Commons Library Note of 23 September 2014 on “Scotland: Devolution Proposals” may be downloaded at:
(3) I refer to this white paper and other relevant matters in an article published in the Juridical Review 2014 (3), 165-176 entitled “The 'State', the 'Crown' and the Union of Scotland and England: Reflections on what might become the Sovereign’s 'new clothes'”.
(4) See and
(5) See Dicey and Rait, Thoughts on the Union between England and Scotland (1920), 298-300. See too for the draft bill before the House of Lords:
See also the Juridical Review article, footnote 3 above, at 167.
(6) There is a very useful House of Commons library note (dated 2012) available on this issue which may be accessed at:
The March 2013 Report of the McKay Commission on the Consequences of Devolution for the House of Commons is accessible at:
(7) See
(8) Emphasis added. His full evidence may be accessed at:
(9) See para 111 of the McKay Commission report, referred to at footnote 6 above. “Even in the case of topics that are not within devolved competence, however, devolution guidance continues to acknowledge the relevance of the underlying principle: by making it best practice for the UK Government to consult the devolved administrations before legislating on these topics”. Devolution Guidance Notes may be accessed at:
(10) Schedule 1 may be accessed at
See further the article cited at footnote 3 above, at 175-176.
(11) See generally the McKay Report, referred to at footnote 6 above. See too as to “Scottish constituency cull”:
(12) Published 5 December 2014. The full report is accessible as a PDF file through
See too the previous House of Commons Library Note on “The English Question”, published on 18 November 2014 and accessible as a PDF file through
(13) The order made in 2013 pursuant to which the referendum was held in 2014 may be accessed at
The Seventh Report of the House of Lords Constitution Committee on “The Agreement on a referendum on independence for Scotland” contains interesting material on the s 30 order and may be accessed through

The Author
Ian Campbell CMG, Honorary Visiting Professor, School of Law, Liverpool University; former circuit judge
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