No, the Scottish Parliament isn’t Sovereign

Today I came across an article published on by a guy called Anthony Barrnett, founder of Entitled ‘Why the EU vote is an English, not British, reckoning’, it discusses the upcoming EU referendum, and the potential implications, with a particular look at the Scottish element.

It seemed like a good read, but before I got too far into it, there was this section:

Scotland has its own sovereign parliament. I emphasise sovereign, The Vow opens by saying that the Scottish Parliament is ‘permanent’. Gordon Brown, who oversaw the formulation of The Vow, was fully aware of the explosive constitutional consequences of this term.

It means that Westminster’s sovereignty no longer extends to Scotland. Now, suppose this sovereign parliament is confronted with the circumstances you describe. I’m not saying they are likely, but if indeed the referendum is as close as the polls currently suggest (not that I believe in them) then it is possible that there will be a vote for Brexit.

As a supporter of Scottish independence, I am all for strengthening the position of our Parliament wherever possible. However, that doesn’t extend into flights of fantasy. To that end, I feel compelled to clarify a few things in response.

On permanence

The formal statutory recognition of the Scottish Parliament as ‘permanent’ was undeniably symbolically important, but in reality it did little to impact the actual constitutional position. In fact, arguably this is precisely why Gordon Brown promised to make this change in the infamous vow; it sounds great rhetorically, without having any substantive practical effect.

The reason for this is pretty straightforward. Despite placing the Sewell Convention ‘on a statutory footing’, the British Parliament still retains ultimate sovereignty. If Westminster were to decide tomorrow that the Scottish Parliament should be abolished, passing an Act to that effect, there is nothing legally that would prevent them from doing so. No Parliament can bind another (or itself) through legislation (following Dicey’s Doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty). For this reason, the following clause (taken from the Scotland Act 2016) seems noble, but ultimately without any effective enforcement:

it is declared that the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government are not to be abolished except on the basis of a decision of the people of Scotland voting in a referendum

For some time there was a theory that certain Acts of Parliament have come to be entrenched with such constitutional importance that they have taken on a special status, and that their repeal could potentially be resisted by rebellious judges, should Parliament dare to attempt it. Examples of these include the European Communities Act 1972 (ECA), the Human Rights Act 1998, and the Scotland Act 2016. However, given the political developments over the past 5+ years, (not to mention the referendum that we are in the middle of) it should be clear that this is not the case. For more reading on that particular point, see this article on the UK Constitutional Law site.

Of course, should Westminster seek to abolish the Scottish Parliament, the fallout would likely be astronomical, but that does not mean that they do not hold the legal power to do so. Holyrood could well be permanent, but if so, it is only through the protections of the will of the Scottish people: not the law.

On Sovereignty

Scotland has its own sovereign parliament. I emphasise sovereign.

Given that the Scottish Parliament is not permanent in any legal sense, then it naturally cannot possibly be sovereign. By definition, if another body ultimately has the legal authority to bring your existence to an end, then you do not hold sovereignty.

To illustrate this further, s.29(1) of the Scotland Act 1998 states:

an Act of the Scottish Parliament is not law so far as any provision of the Act is outside the legislative competence of the Parliament

going on to explain that this includes [the Parliament] having: ‘no power to make any subordinate legislation, or to do any other act, so far as the legislation or act is incompatible with any of the Convention rights.’ In other words, it is legally impossible for the Scottish Parliament to bring about any law or action that is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. Note, that this restriction doesn’t apply to the Parliament in Westminster. Why? Because Westminster is sovereign, and Holyrood is not. A sovereign Parliament cannot be legally bound in this way. Whilst Westminster can willingly choose to restrict its sovereignty by entering into international treaties and accepting the corresponding obligations, that does not mean that sovereignty is relinquished, and it does not have the restriction imposed by a third party.

Another grand statement included in the CommonSpace article is this:

It means that Westminster’s sovereignty no longer extends to Scotland.

What a wonderful thought! I am not sure how the author has come to this conclusion, as they don’t expand on this further in the article, but as it stands, it is completely inaccurate.

Again, whilst convention may dictate that the Westminster Parliament will not legislate in areas which fall within the competence of the Scottish Parliament, that does not mean that they are unable to do so. In fact, the whole nature of the Scottish Parliament is based on the granting of powers from Westminster. The only legal authority that the Scottish Ministers have is that derived from the sovereignty of the British Parliament; ‘a creature of statute’.

So whit?

Why does this matter? It matters because if the Scottish Parliament was sovereign, then we would be an independent, sovereign country – exactly what those of us who voted ‘Yes’ in 2014 were fighting for. That simply isn’t the case, and perpetuating disinformation does a disservice to us all. So no Anthony, sadly the Scottish Parliament is not sovereign. Yet.