Constitutional Rights

First Minister Alex SalmondFirst Minister Alex Salmond

Foreign Press Association

London

January 16, 2013

 

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Today, the Westminster Parliament concludes its consideration of a piece of secondary legislation under the Scotland Act. That might not normally sound like something worth making a speech about. However this Section 30 Order, as it is known, ensures that the referendum on Scottish independence in autumn 2014 will be designed, built and overseen in Scotland.

Today is an appropriate date for Westminster to finish its deliberations.  It was on the 16th of January  in 1707, that the old Scots Parliament voted to ratify the Treaty of Union.

In less than two years’ time Scotland will be faced with its most important decision since that day in 1707.

This time, the decision will not be made by Parliament alone, but by the people of Scotland as a whole.

The Section 30 Order demonstrates that the Edinburgh Agreement, which I signed with David Cameron in October,  is being honoured by both the UK and Scottish Governments as we move towards the referendum.

It shows that although we disagree fundamentally about the merits of independence, the referendum itself will take place with the consent and co-operation of both the UK Government and the Scottish Government.

That consent and co-operation is an important factor in the Scottish constitutional debate – and it means that Scotland’s referendum takes place in a very different context from many of the other debates and discussions about sovereignty taking place elsewhere around the world.

The Section 30 Order is not just important because it gives the Scottish Parliament unchallengeable authority to legislate for a referendum. It is also important as a template for co-operation between the Scottish and UK Governments after the referendum.

The SNP victory in 2011 made clear the people’s wish for a referendum on independence. That was recognised immediately by all sides. The Edinburgh Agreement set out how the process would be taken forward.

In the same way, a vote for independence in the referendum would be recognised immediately by all sides.

Indeed, under the Edinburgh Agreement, the Scottish and UK Governments have made a commitment to work together after the referendum, and to respect the outcome.

Regardless of whatever scaremongering takes place during the period before the referendum, once the people’s decision is known, that is exactly what will happen.

International precedents – especially the establishment of the Czech and Slovak republics, and the reunification of Germany - demonstrate that once the popular will is determined, constitutional discussions can be concluded in good time.

We expect, therefore, that by May 2016 - the date of the next elections to the Scottish Parliament - legislation will be in place which transfers sovereignty  from Westminster to Holyrood.  We will have agreed necessary transitional arrangements with the UK Government. And Scotland’s independence will have been accepted by the international community.

An independent Scotland would not make changes to policy in reserved areas until after those elections in 2016. Until the transfer of sovereignty takes place, we will not have the power to do so. Essentially, nothing will change, in reserved areas, until and unless a newly elected independent Scottish Parliament begins its work, and chooses to change them.

However what we will do is establish the constitutional platform for independence – preserving continuity in key areas, but providing the first independent Scottish Parliament with the tools to make Scotland a better place.

That process of becoming independent is hugely important. But for this morning’s speech I want to look beyond issues of process. I want to talk about why the 2014 referendum matters, why we seek independence, the sort of Scotland we wish to see. 

Following a yes vote in 2014, the first independent Scottish parliament will be elected in May 2016. One of the first, most fundamental and exciting tasks of that parliament will be to establish the process for Scotland’s first written constitution through a constitutional convention.

For centuries, Scotland has had a distinct constitutional tradition - first expressed in the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, reaffirmed by the 1989 Claim of Right for Scotland, and most recently restated by the Scottish Parliament just one year ago.

That tradition states that the people of Scotland are sovereign and that they have the power to determine the form of government best suited to their needs. It stands in contrast to the UK principle that parliament has unlimited sovereignty.   

That UK tradition is one of the reasons that the UK has no written constitution. That makes the UK highly unusual among Western democracies, and unique within the European Union. That deficiency is a democratic deficit that an independent Scotland should not repeat.

We will make it one of the first duties of the parliament of an independent Scotland to establish a convention to draw up that written constitution. And we will return to our older constitutional tradition of the people’s sovereignty, by making sure the people are directly involved in that process.

There are some recent and inspiring examples of constitutional renewal involving citizens as well as politicians. In particular, Iceland is an example of modern technologies being used to harness enthusiasm of citizens as well as politicians in the renewal of their constitution. After wide consultation, its new constitution was approved by the people last October.

Looking further back, the US Constitutional Convention of 1787 brought representatives together from across the country – they set out the values of the new republic with such principled clarity that the document is still revered more than 200 years later.

Scotland’s constitutional convention will provide an opportunity for everyone to express their views. All political parties will be involved, together with the wider public and civic Scotland.

The reason for this is that Scotland’s constitution should enshrine the people’s sovereignty and affirm the values and rights of the people, of the Community of the Realm of Scotland. Since no single party or individual has a monopoly on good ideas; all parties, and all individuals, will be encouraged to contribute.

The current Scottish Government has specific proposals about some of the measures which could be included in a written constitution.

All parties and citizens of Scotland will be encouraged to contribute their views of what should be in Scotland’s first written constitution. I don’t want to be prescriptive, because the Scottish Government is just one voice in the process, but nevertheless it is useful to have examples for illustration.

It is important to remember that the devolved Scottish Parliament already has embedded in it the European Convention on Human Rights, and these kinds of safeguards will continue to be built in to the parliament of an independent Scotland. However what I have in mind are constitutional provisions that go beyond those touchstone rights to embrace fundamental human concerns, the key economic, social and environmental needs of every citizen and the responsibilities of state and citizen towards each other.

I want to outline just three examples today, to highlight some of the issues the Constitutional Convention could consider.

At the moment, the UK Government’s austerity measures and welfare cuts are raising questions about how people’s rights to vital social services can be protected. In Scotland we have a policy of the right to free education in keeping with our history as the nation which pioneered universal education. We also have homelessness legislation which is proving effective by granting rights to people who are made involuntarily homeless. There is an argument for embedding those provisions as constitutional rights.

A second issue which the constitution could examine could include the future of Trident. Scotland is currently the home of Western Europe’s largest concentration of weapons of mass destruction. They are based on the River Clyde, within 30 miles of Scotland’s largest city. A constitutional ban on the possession of nuclear weapons would end that obscenity.

And thirdly, is the issue of the use of our armed forces and what constitutional safeguards should be established for the use of Scottish troops. This is of great and recent relevance. In 2003, the Westminster Parliament was effectively misled into sanctioning the illegal invasion of Iraq. We should therefore explore what parliamentary and constitutional safeguards should be established for the use of Scottish forces.

I give these three examples, because the Scottish Government is just one part of the process.  Other issues we might want to consider include the use of Scotland’s natural resources and the requirement to ensure that economic growth is sustainable, and Scotland’s responsibilities as a member of the international community.

The act of drawing up a constitution will energise and inspire people from all parties and from across civic Scotland. It will be part of a new settlement between the government and the people. It will be a fitting underpinning for a newly independent nation.

It is worth contrasting the vigour of the constitutional debate in Scotland with the current position down the road at Westminster.

In the UK Parliament, the last two years have seen a further failure to reform the House of Lords, after a century of false starts. It seems clear that change to the voting system for the House of Commons is off the agenda for the foreseeable future. And there are deep disagreements, including within the coalition Government, about the value of a separate UK Bill of Rights, which has been a proxy for the wider European debate, as opposed to being seen as an instrument for constitutional renewal or the protection of the liberties of citizens.  

After independence, Scotland will move away from the outdated and profoundly undemocratic Westminster system, which in addition regularly delivers governments with no popular mandate in Scotland.

In an independent Scotland we will move instead to a more transparent, democratic and effective system of government - one designed by the people of Scotland, for the people of Scotland.

In doing so, we will make Scotland’s constitution an early signal of how the people of Scotland will use the powers of independence – to take our place as  a good global citizen, to protect and affirm the values we hold dear, and to create a fairer and more prosperous nation.

That is a key part of the 'why' for independence for Scotland.