Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Scotland’s debt to Canada

The new Scottish

Not having particularly kept up with Scottish politics after the ’45, and despite having close Scottish relations involved on the fringe of the Scottish political scene, the niceties of the devolution settlement have largely eluded me. I’ve only made it up to Scotland once since devolution anyway, and spent the majority of the trip in the remote Highlands getting boozed up on fine whisky.

You’d think that for someone with a keen interest in British constitutional history I’d have paid more attention, considering that devolution was always – potentially – the most significant constitutional change since universal suffrage was introduced. I just never really thought it would have legs, and that the entire experiment would end up being scrapped once it was shown to be a huge waste of money. More fool me, it would seem, as it appears that something very odd indeed may be happening north of the border.

Because, you see, in constitutional and international legal terms, terminology is hugely important. Call the Scottish political executive an executive, fine. Call it a government? Well, it’s not, is it? It has elements of the powers of a government, but it’s merely a subservient element of the federation that is the United Kingdom, surely?

That’s what I’ve largely – in my ignorance of the niceties of Scottish politics – thought to be the case. But now I’m not so sure, as it looks rather as if the ruling Scottish National Party has already decided to declare independence in the most subtle of ways – in a manner, in fact, that has barely even been noticed by the London-centric media, and that appears to have been done with little or no consultation with Westminster.

This is the post that’s drawn my attention to it:

“the unilateral decision of the Scottish National Party’s minority administration to remove the Royal Coat of Arms from government offices and rename the Scottish Executive as the Scottish Government is not a ‘rebranding’; it’s a rebellion.

“That’s what you call the removal of lawful authority’s symbols in conjunction with unmandated, unsupported and unsupportable claims to the sole title to govern nations. They’re called rebellions…

“It says much for how deeply, and dismally, the dismal science has seeped into the hearts of the British people that so much reaction to the rebellion has focussed on ‘How much does the rebranding cost?, rather than the more pertinent question of ‘How dare you try to take our country from us?'”

Merely calling the Scottish Executive the Scottish Government doesn’t give it all the powers of a government, that much is certainly true. Hollyrood still lacks the power to declare war and make treaties independent of the rest of the UK, after all, two defining aspects of governmental power. Yet it does have the power to raise some taxes, and to set policy in areas as important as education, health, transport and – most vitally – justice.

Considering how restrained most European states are in their foreign policies these days – what with obligations to the EU, NATO, UN, WTO etc. etc. etc. – is the ability to determine an independent foreign policy really a necessary hallmark of a national government these days? If not, the Scottish National Party’s “rebranding” of Scotland’s Executive as “the Scottish Government” could well be an informal declaration of independence from the UK. Not full independence just yet, certainly, but certainly a significant step down that route.

There are, let’s face it, plenty of precedents to choose from for countries under British/English rule seeking full independence. You can take the armed rebellion route, like the Americans, or the peaceful negotiation, like India.

Scotland, however, seems to be taking Canada as its role model, specifically the concept of patriation. Because in 1867, under the British North America Act, Canada gained partial independence – an independence which crept steadily over the following century, until the country was fully independent in all but name. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1982 Canada Act that our Canuck cousins gained full independence from Britain.

So, was the passing of the Scotland Act the latter-day equivalent of the first British North America Act of 1867? Is Scotland truly now in that no man’s land of not being fully independent, not fully under London’s control, as Canada was from 1867-1982? And are the masterminds of the independence-seeking Scottish National Party, currently in control at Hollyrood, using their current position to make subtle changes – such as calling themselves a government rather than an executive – merely to hasten the process, or is this something more significant?

9 Comments

  1. But surely Canada had dominion status and was not part of United Kingdom. It’s not as though Scotland could ever take advantage of the statute of westminster, could they?

  2. Though not mentioned in the Statute of Westminster, Scottish types could probably make use of that as a precedent for how to deal with countries granted partial self-government without independence – and potentially also the 1926 Balfour Declaration. It’s certainly a closer parallel than the Irish Home Rule spats.

    In any case, considering that the definition of a Dominion was a self-governing colony (and that the term’s late Imperial usage originated with Canada’s gradual official formation during the 19th century), a case could be made that that’s what Scotland effectively is these days… Yes, technically it’s been an equal partner since the Act of Union, but it’s arguably been treated as little better than a colony by most monarchs/governments since the time of Charles I (his father, naturally, being rather more favourably inclined to his homeland).

    Of course, if we start treating Scotland as a Domnion, that would probably mean that we’d have to change Alex Salmond’s job title to Governor-General for a few years, just to maintain tradition, but still…

  3. Not sure about the comparison with Canada, but the comparison with Wales is instructive – I quote from wales.gov.uk (btw it’s always been scotland.gov.uk…): “The Welsh Assembly Government is the devolved government for Wales. Led by the First Minister, it is responsible for many issues, including health, education, economic development, culture, the environment and transport.” When I moved to Scotland, I was mystified by the use of the term “Executive” because it didn’t seem to me to express what I was seeing which was the exercise of governmental powers. Yes, there is a partial symbolic element to this which is to do with Salmond, etc. etc. but there is also a hugely functional element which is shared right across the political firmament in Scotland. But then, when reading the London-based press, you wouldn’t expect that point to come across.

  4. Bondwoman – that’s the trouble I have. Is it already a government, and if so, is “devolution” rather more significant that we in the south were led to believe? We’ve already had revived concerns about the West Lothian Question, and plenty of anti-Scottish rhetoric from the Tories in the run-up to Brown’s coronation – but isn’t this actually justified if Scotland has its own government? Doesn’t that mean that the English Parliament chaps have a very good point?

    Or is DoctorVee’s take fair?: “It’s a tweak to the political lexicon that is not needed. Since the inception of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 there has been a need to differentiate between the bodies that govern us.”

    He also links to this piece by an SNP councillor, which is instructive: “once we are called a Government, act like a Government, people will begin to demand the powers of a Government” – it does seem likely that it’s all part of a longer-term gameplan to get full independence. (Which wouldn’t particularly bother me, as long as I don’t need my passport to cross the border – it’d almost certainly help to reduce the tax burden in the south, at any rate…)

  5. Now you are trying to wind me up. You’ll still have to support the real “sick men” of the UK economy, namely the North East of England and Wales :-). No seriously, you are falling into the classic trap of conceiving of devolution as a state of affairs rather than as a process. It’s definitely the latter.

  6. Actually, come to think of it, this move by the SNP reminds me of the move made by Sinn Fein after the Treaty negotiations that followed the Irish war of Independence. Sinn Fein negotiated the creation of an oddly named Irish “Free State”. The name came about by directly transalating the Irish word for Republic (Saor Stat) into English. It was a cute linguistic trick to make it seem like they’d achieved more at the negotiations than they actually had, since their goal in the negotiations would have been the creation of a Republic.

    I think that the real value of the SNP’s latest move is not so much legal significance as the fact that it helps to create an atmosphere where the Scots will become more accustomed to the notion of governing themselves. I wonder how Alex Salmond’s feels about being Governor-General?

  7. On the one hand, the SNP’s motives are pretty clear. But in a sense it is easy to blow this out of proportion.

    A lot of people are saying, “How dare they call themselves a government?” Or, “It has elements of the powers of a government, but it’s merely a subservient element of the federation that is the United Kingdom, surely?”

    The thing is though, everybody is familiar with the term ‘local government’ and nobody bats an eyelid about it. So is the Scottish Government a government? Probably yes.

    That doesn’t justify the name change though. It’s been known as the Scottish Executive since its inception and it will be difficult for people to get out of the habit of calling it that.

    Plus, it could be the thin end of the wedge. If the SNP can change the name of the Executive seemingly at will, what next? Will Labour change the name of the House of Commons to the Happy House of Excellent Laws?

    Also, Nosemonkey, I definitely think you have underestimated the extent of what has been going on with devolution — as I pointed out here in May.

    The thing is, the English Parliament chaps do have a point. Ironically, I think most Scots understand that more than most English people.

  8. Well, usually it’s called local authorities. But looking at the significance of this change I safely at the side of people who consider a cosmetic change to make it looks like the SNP is actually moving towards independence.

    And the SNP’s movement towards independence is, in my opinion, nothing more then a negotiation technique to get labour a bit scared and get them to heave more competences to Scotland. The SNP well knows that full independence is not beneficial for Scotland, and they’d just like to end up somewhere in between. This assures them electoral victory (hey at least we tried) and financial security (the UK still paying).

    The point made that this move would make the Scottish Executive more Government like is a load of scrap. People already see it as a full government. The SNP was already demanding and promising things not within it’s remit, knowing that they wouldn’t be able to deliver (Scottish Troops out of Iraq, no Nuclear weapons).

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