Scottish independence/separation: constitutional wrangling meets international law oversight?

The constitutional settlement of the United Kingdom is a tad enigmatic. It was thus before the advent of devolution: I’ll see your peculiarly English sovereignty of parliament and raise you McCormick v Lord Advocate, and all that. The Scotland Act 1998 did not exactly simplify the position. This is the backdrop on which a rather important play somehow has to be acted. The play in question is, of course, the referendum on Scottish independence from England, Wales and Northern Ireland (RUK) that is scheduled for 2014. I would not deign to speak with great authority on the constitutional position of the referendum, others have already done so  . This week the Scottish Affairs Committee has added its contribution to the fray. Not unexpectedly, the committee’s membership has been critiqued by some, but following my own post about being an academic lawyer it does not pay to criticise a man for what he happens to be if you cannot attack the points he makes. What does the report say?

According to the news release accompanying the work of this committee of MPs, “the overwhelming weight of evidence shows that the Scottish Parliament cannot presently legislate to hold a referendum on separation” . Jolly good. But what did the committee not consider? Answer: the small matter of international law.

The role of international law

Of course, the Scottish Affairs Committee may not have had a remit to consider international law and may not have been addressed on the point, but having conducted a word-search of the published material it seems that “self-determination” never features and the word “international” only appears as part of the word “internationally” when the committee notes: “Questions of separation and national status, such as devolution, are clearly often seen as suitable for referendums internationally.” International law was not, therefore, a crucial part of the committee’s collective musings.

Okay, international law can be something of a shoogly peg. The brashest critique of international law is it is simply what happens. Ex post facto analysis seems to reign. “Successful revolution begets its own legality”, that comment being made by Stanley A. de Smith in 1968 and quoted by the Supreme Court of Canada in Reference re Secession of Quebec. A metaphor involving a cart and a horse springs to mind, but that is not all the court noted when considering whether or not Quebec could unilaterally secede from the Canadian Confederation.

What else the court said makes for fascinating reading. It was noted that if the people of Quebec were subject to control by some kind of colonial power a right to unilaterally secede would have been recognised. Of course, the descendants of the French speaking populace who lost to Wolfe’s forces at the Plains of Abraham might have the odd gripe or two with their inherited lot, but the fact that Quebecers have actively participated in the government of the country as a whole meant a unilateral secession that would affect the rights and constitutional balance of the rest of Canada was not something the court would entertain. Analogies with Scotland abound. Deploy what rhetoric you will, but RUK is not a colonial power: East Timor’s secession from Indonesia would not be akin to Scotland’s secession from RUK. However, and it is a big however, the court also noted the following:

The continued existence and operation of the Canadian constitutional order could not be indifferent to a clear expression of a clear majority of Quebecers that they no longer wish to remain in Canada.  The other provinces and the federal government would have no basis to deny the right of the government of Quebec to pursue secession, should a clear majority of the people of Quebec choose that goal, so long as in doing so, Quebec respects the rights of others.

The federal government of Canada enacted the Clarity Act shortly thereafter.

So what can Scotland learn from Canada, that country where the Lowland Scots and Highland Gaels had so much impact in the first place? Let us set aside the Scotland Act 1998 (as amended) wrangling, even just for a moment. The Supreme Court of the UK would approach international law in a not dissimilar way to the Supreme Court of Canada. That being so, it may be that a referendum suitably framed in a manner that the Scottish people understand would be protected by a carapace of international law. Without an equivalent to the Clarity Act, what would happen if a referendum took place?

Let us now make a number of assumptions. First, assume that a referendum is called. It must be noted that the dance at the moment seems reminiscent of the “will he, won’t he” Gordon Brown contended with when challenged to call a snap election. The tentative dance technique is perhaps more easily attributed to the nationalists, but then again the unionists are rather coy in their moves as well. So be it. The die has been cast so the referendum will (it seems) take place at some point.

Let us now assume that that referendum proceeds notwithstanding any challenge by an officious citizen (which citizen might be any kind of interested party, considering the recent Supreme Court decision in the Axa case on who might have standing).

Let us now assume the referendum is won by the nationalists, which is no small assumption based on current polling indications or musings.

Assuming all of these not insignificant assumptions come to pass, could Westminster hide behind the points in the Scottish Affairs Committee report? For all the reasons set out above regarding international law, I would submit they would be hard pressed to ignore the result of a referendum. Sure, all of this might well be resolved quickly by a Clarity Act equivalent, but we do not have that yet. The Scottish Affairs Committee was apparently reporting on the situation as it stands, but the lack of consideration of international law in that status quo strikes me as a big omission.

International law tangents

Some other points are worth mentioning, which is all I shall do before rapidly ducking away from them. The first is what exactly do we mean by the Scottish people? The similar question about Quebecers was similarly ducked by the Canadian court, so I am in good company, but the point would be up for debate as self-determination is predicated on there being a people that self-determines.

Secondly, there is the international law point of recognition. A state can be thought of as a state when it is recognised as such by existing members of the sovereignty club (i.e. other states). Of course, this harks back to the point mentioned above about ex post facto analysis, but the views of other states might just come into play if a vote happened and a rush to recognise the best wee country in the world emerged. Some states might be all to keen to recognise an independent Scotland: would Argentina take a punt that RUK’s toehold in the South Atlantic would loosen without Scotland as part of the UK, for example? How many recognitions it would take to make Scotland a state is not, of course, in any way clear.

A final point is not entirely relevant to this debate, but the international law focus provides cover to introduce the concept of uti possidetis. At one point in a debate, a flustered SNP MP acknowledged the right of Orcadians and Shetlanders to self determination. It would be a tad hypocritical not to, of course, but in relation to the Balkans the Badinter commission was pretty clear that “whatever the circumstances, the right to self-determination must not involve changes to existing frontiers at the time of independence (uti possidetis juris) except where the states concerned agree otherwise.” One self-determinative step at a time, please.


Will international law provide a solution to all the vagaries of the Scottish referendum? No, it won’t, but the thoughts in this blog about it, and the Quebecer/Canadian experience in particular, may be of interest. A fuller note on the Canadian experience exists for those who have had their curiosity piqued. International law aside, some might argue we can just get on with it anyway, whilst others will wade around in the constitutional mire and perhaps enjoy a bit of a strop in the process. Much fun, gurning and gnashing of teeth will no doubt follow in months to come, but perhaps international law might smooth over certain concerns. It has been something of a bit-part player in the play thus far, it might yet have a more prominent role in the latter scenes of the show.

Finally, even if we take nothing from the Canadian legal experience, perhaps we can take something from the views of Michael Ignatieff. His fascinating interview on how Canada will not quite be the same as a social union from earlier this year is still available on the BBC and is well worth a view.

About basedrones

Bachelor of Laws. Scots lawyer working at the University of Aberdeen. English law qualified. Took far too long to write this bio. Blogs on legal issues, with occasional veering into other purportedly intellectual stuff from time to time. Tweets about legal issues, education, law clinics, fitba, music, rogue cell division and not at all about politics at @MalcolmCombe.
This entry was posted in International Law, Law, Scottish Independence and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Scottish independence/separation: constitutional wrangling meets international law oversight?

  1. Neil King says:

    If the referendum is held, the legalities will pale in to insignificance next to the politics which ensue from the result. What would be more interesting (politically) would be if a court held the referendum was ultra vires BEFORE it was held. Imagine if the Court of Session interdicted the Scottish (soi disant) Goverment from holding the referendum …

    Also, was it not the Heights of Abraham? Or were the Plains something else?

  2. Pingback: Self-Determination at the Scottish Constitutional Futures Forum | basedrones

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s