Viewpoint: There's a precedent for only voting in Scotland

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Some believe it's unfair that only Scotland will have a say on Scottish independence. But Murray Pittock says that's the way it's always been.

The philosopher Roger Scruton has recently suggested that the whole of the UK should vote on the Scottish referendum. Such a suggestion has been made from a number of quarters over the past few years.

While the terms on which the referendum will be held are now well established, it is worth noting why the Scruton option would not lead to a fair referendum held according to established UK constitutional precedent and international practice.

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Referendums on constitutional change have for a long time only been held in the countries or territories seeking the change, with only their electorate able to vote. In the Commonwealth, this was the case in the Newfoundland referendum of 1948, which saw a narrow vote to join Canada, and the Quebec referendum of 1995, which saw an almost equally narrow vote to stay in Canada.

In the UK itself, the Northern Ireland plebiscite of 1973, while boycotted by the nationalist community, bore witness to UK acquiescence in this norm, a lesson no doubt hard learnt after the failure to recognise domestic Irish opinion within the UK as a whole between 1886 and 1918.

Legality and morality align here - the veto exercised on Irish Home Rule by the British parties was in the end destructive and dangerous, and on the way led to some British politicians condoning breaches of the law by Unionists.

The UK has never repeated this mistake, though the Scottish case is of course very different. The 1979 and 1997 devolution referendums and the 2011 referendum on increased powers in Wales therefore adopted the territorial approach. The 2014 referendum is thus being carried out in full accordance with established British constitutional practice, also embodied in the 1998 Northern Ireland Act.

Territorially limited referendums can imply a divisible claim to sovereignty - this is the judgement of Lord Steyn in the 2005 Jackson v the Attorney General case. The 2009 Calman Commission which underpins the 2012 Scotland Act also notes the necessity of acknowledging territorially distinct jurisdictions.

Another view

Roger Scruton
  • Writer and philosopher Roger Scruton has suggested voters south of the border should be allowed a say

Elsewhere, the 1918 Iceland sovereignty referendum was not a matter for Denmark's voters, despite the fact that it imposed constitutional change on Denmark. The Puerto Rican status referendum of 2012 was for Puerto Rican voters only. The 2011 South Sudan referendum was likewise for South Sudanese voters only. And so on.

So the electorate for this Scottish referendum is well established by international constitutional and legal precedent - indeed, there is little precedent for any other approach. But perhaps a more interesting question is how did we get here at all? How did it come to this?

First of all, the Union of Scotland and England, though widely resented at the time and leading to armed rebellion on a large scale throughout most of the country in 1715 and again in 1745, became increasingly accepted after 1760. That was because it was seen as guaranteeing two things - Scottish access to imperial markets and the domestic autonomy of Scottish institutions.

In the former British Empire, Caledonian Associations flourished, helping to network Scots globally into jobs and other opportunities as a national group while Scotland's towns, schools, banks, law and universities largely ran themselves as they had done before 1707. There were interventions in this from Westminster, but they were sporadic. Between the wars things started to change, though as late as 1938 Scotland had full national representation in its hosting of the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow.

Empire exhibition, Glasgow 1938 The Empire exhibition in Glasgow, 1938

In the World War Two planning documents, Scotland became first clearly identified as a "region", while the development of increasingly centralised British economic and social policy after 1945, coupled with the contraction of the British Empire, undermined both Scottish domestic control and access to overseas markets. Meanwhile, the UK responded to its loss of status by demanding an increasingly homogenous one size fits all "Britishness". A term which could once be applied to Scots, Canadians and many others became increasingly not an identity of international variety, but one of national conformity. This was seen in increasing alignments with "British" norms in Scotland in education, law and financial services in the 1960s.

Winnie Ewing arrives in London as SNP member of parliament Winnie Ewing celebrates her election, 1967

There was a sense of provincial marginalisation in a country whose generals and tycoons had once trod the global stage. It was no coincidence that when Winnie Ewing won the first peacetime by-election for the SNP in 1967 that she said: "Stop the world: Scotland wants to get on." The idea of protecting and developing Scotland's economy and institutions locally while renewing engagement with global markets and international institutions has been at the heart of much of what has led to constitutional debate in Scotland.

Since 2007, the current Scottish Government has strongly promoted the country abroad - exports of Scottish produce (not just whisky) are rapidly rising and in high demand. Within a British context, Scotland has not been readily recognised as a national partner or promoted as one, and indeed the separate promotion of Scotland in the UK's global engagements was arguably more visible in 1900 than it is today. Constitutional responses have often come too little and too late - there is a nation north of the border, and the fact there is a risk it might become a state after 2014 is a situation which is as much a product of British omission as Scottish action.

Murray Pittock is the author of The Road to Independence - Scotland in the Balance (2014). His The Roots of Scottish Nationalism was broadcast in five parts on Radio 4 from 4-8 November 2013.

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