I wonder if those who say things like “we are not at the end of the Section 30 order road” have ever stopped to think about what a Section 30 order actually is. When I hear people insisting that a Section 30 order is absolutely required for a referendum on restoring Scotland’s independence to be ‘legal and ‘binding’, I tend to wonder if they have considered what a Section 30 order is for and why this ‘loophole’ was made part of the Scotland Act 1998. After all, we know that the core purpose of the legislation is, not to empower the Scottish Parliament, but to keep it in check. We know that the devolution experiment never had anything to do with addressing the democratic deficit imposed by the Union or improving Scotland’s governance, but was always about creating a new and superficially more democratic framework within which powers could be ‘managed’ without the risk of compromising the Union. So why would the legislation include a provision for granting additional powers to the Scottish Parliament?
The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t. As becomes immediately clear when one reads the relevant text at Section 30(2).
Her Majesty may by Order in Council make any modifications of Schedule 4 or 5 which She considers necessary or expedient.Scotland Act 1998
Expressed in a less legalistic, and more forthright, fashion what this says is that the British Prime Minister – currently a malignant child-clown named Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson – can alter the powers of the Scottish Parliament whenever they want and in any way they deem “necessary or expedient” for their purposes – that purpose being ever and always the preservation of the Union. I think it’s fair to say that Section 30 isn’t sounding like quite the boon to Scotland some seem to suppose it to be. It is simply another device by which the British state may rein in the Scottish Parliament. Or, at least, that was the intention. Belt and braces legislation. Just in case there were any loopholes which might allow Holyrood more power than was intended, Section 30 allows the British political elite to quickly patch up any chink in the armour protecting the Union.
You may be asking how, if the purpose of Section 30 is to provide extra protection for the Union, did it come to be used to secure a ‘legal and binding’ independence referendum in 2014? To understand how this came about you need know just one thing – Alex Salmond is a lot smarter than David Cameron. Alex Salmond played Cameron like the proverbial old fiddle. He knew his opponent and was keenly aware that he could rely on a mix of hubris, arrogance and ignorance to enable him to extract what he wanted from the then British Prime Minister. And what he wanted was, not the Section 30 order itself, but the Edinburgh Agreement that accompanied it.
Of course, the drafters of the legislation never envisaged Section 30 being used in this way. They assumed the Scottish Parliament would always be controlled by the the British parties; who would never do anything to jeopardise the Union. That’s the way the electoral system was set up. Not, as some imagine, to keep the SNP out, but to keep some combination or permutation of British parties perpetually in. Another safeguard for the Union. You may be starting to discern a pattern.
Alex Salmond is a brilliant political operator. A master of the art of keeping open as many options as possible and a man who can calculate, on the fly, all the values in a complex trade-off. Setting a precedent by requesting a Section 30 order was dangerous because, on the face of it, this might limit the options available in the future. Remember that, in 2012, Salmond had little reason to suppose that a referendum could be won. He was pretty much bounced into going for it because, in 2011, the Scottish electorate broke the voting system in a way that not even Alex Salmond could have predicted. He had to declare the referendum. And he would do his utmost to win it. But he was also planning for the loss and looking to get as much out of the whole exercise as he could.
Aware that the precedent-setting risk involved in requesting a Section 30 order was at least mitigated and almost certainly negated by the unlawfulness of any attempt to deny the right of self-determination, Salmond figured the trade-off was worth it to secure the Edinburgh Agreement and, crucially, formal recognition of Scotland’s right of self-determination by the British state. Asking permission from Cameron must have grated severely on Salmond’s Scottish sensibilities. But, ever the pragmatist, he got on with doing what was necessary.
So, to summarise – the purpose of Section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998, is to afford the British Prime Minister the legal authority to unilaterally and arbitrarily alter the powers of the Scottish Parliament. So much for the ‘most powerful devolved parliament in the world’!
Alex Salmond used the Section 30 procedure to manipulate David Cameron into formally acknowledging Scotland’s right of self-determination as part of a subsidiary plan to ease the way for a new referendum in the event that the 2014 vote went the wrong way.
Salmond realised that this could not set an awkward precedent as the Section 30 procedure would always be trumped by international laws and conventions relating to the right of self-determination. Which does not mean that we should take the British government to court – whatever that may entail. What it means, and what Salmond no doubt intended, is that the British state is powerfully deterred from taking the Scottish Government to court. It is highly unlikely that any constitutional court, including the UK Supreme Court, would uphold the British government’s right to exercise what is effectively a veto over Scotland’s right of self-determination. To do so would be to strike down the Charter of the United Nations. No constitutional court would risk its credibility in this way. No judge would want that on their Debrett’s entry, or their Wikipedia page.
The question, therefore, is not whether we are “at the end of the Section 30 order road”, but whether we should be on that road at all.
Some insist that a Section 30 order is required to make a referendum legal. This is the colonised mind speaking. Note how such people constantly fret about the legality of what Scotland does and its bearing on independent Scotland gaining recognition by the international community. Note how they rarely, if ever, think about questioning the legality of what the British state does. They never ask how a law prohibiting or constraining a fundamental democratic right can possibly be valid. The British political elite has only to assert a power, and the colonised mind unthinkingly accepts it. The superiority of the British state is mindlessly assumed.
What matters in relation to the right of self-determination is, not formal legality, but democratic legitimacy. So long as the process by which the right of self-determination is exercised can be shown to be open and democratic, any law purporting to prohibit or constrain that right cannot itself be legitimate. Especially when that law is imposed by a parliament and a government which itself lacks even the semblance of democratic legitimacy. Who says so? Well, among others, the British government. It is stated with great clarity and concision in the British government’s statement(s) to the International Court of Justice inquiry as to whether the declaration of independence by the provisional institutions of self-government of Kosovo was in accordance
with international law.
5.5 Consistent with this general approach, international law has not treated the legality of the act of secession under the internal law of the predecessor State as determining the effect of that act on the international plane. In most cases of secession, of course, the predecessor State‟s law will not have been complied with: that is true almost as a matter of definition.
5.6 Nor is compliance with the law of the predecessor State a condition for the declaration of independence to be recognised by third States, if other conditions for recognition are fulfilled. The conditions do not include compliance with the internal legal requirements of the predecessor State. Otherwise the international legality of a secession would be predetermined by the very system of internal law called in question by the circumstances in
which the secession is occurring.
5.7 For the same reason, the constitutional authority of the seceding entity to proclaim independence within the predecessor State is not determinative as a matter of international law. In most if not all cases, provincial or regional authorities will lack the constitutional authority to secede. The act of secession is not thereby excluded. Moreover, representative institutions may legitimately act, and seek to reflect the views of their constituents, beyond the scope of already conferred power.WRITTEN STATEMENT OF THE UNITED KINGDOM
It is abundantly clear that there is no necessity to follow the Section 30 procedure. So the question becomes one of what, if anything, makes it desirable to do so? And that is a far more difficult question, because it concerns subjective judgement Personally, I just hope that those ‘influencers’ who are advocating for the Section 30 procedure have actually thought it through. And, if our elected leaders are opting for the Section 30 procedure, I feel entitled to demand to know why, and to be assured that they have fully considered the kind of implications outlined in a previous article.
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