Holyrood fully entitled to hold independence referendum
THERE has been a great deal of debate and discussion in recent times over the question of the Scottish Parliament holding a referendum on independence. Like any other parliament, the Scottish Parliament would be quite entitled to do so if its members so desired.
In the United Kingdom, all referendums are advisory, though if the Scottish people did vote for independence in a referendum that met normal democratic standards, Westminster would be obliged to recognise that result.
In The Scotsman earlier this week, it was claimed that two referendums would be needed - one in Scotland and another one across the UK. As someone who has advised on several international referendums and written extensively on the subject, I take exception to these claims.
The facts of the matter are rather different. The legal and political position regarding referendums on independence can be summed up in the following points:
• There are no examples of two referendums being held before independence was granted.
• All referendums conducted in accordance with international standards have been recognised by the international community.
• Scotland would not need the consent of the rest of the UK before a referendum was held. Iceland was granted independence from Denmark although the referendum was advisory only.
Needless to say, the referendum is not a panacea. Democracy is not just about majority rule, and referendums are - and should only be - used when held in accordance with internationally recognised norms and standards.
Efforts must be made to ensure a fair wording of the question, equal access to the media and suchlike. But when these conditions are met - as they usually are - referendums are almost invariably recognised by the international community.
Indeed, in all but one of the dozen referendums on independence held in Europe since 1945, the international community has recognised the outcome irrespective of the position of the claims by the former sovereign power. The only odd one out was the referendum on Northern Cyprus in 1985, in a referendum which arguably was not held in accordance with international standards of fairness.
To claim that a referendum that met democratic standards would be challenged in the courts is equally spurious.
The essence of a referendum is that it should be the will of the people.
Needless to say, a referendum should only take place once all the issues have been thoroughly debated. To make a case for a referendum does not imply that one is necessarily in favour of independence. But the people should have a choice.
The fundamental truth is that not all issues can be decided through representative democracy. You can support a party without supporting all its policies - for example, it is possible to vote for, say, the Green Party, without being in favour of independence. Hence the need for a referendum.
A referendum is a signal to the politicians. This truth was recognised by Scottish Labour politicians who organised the unofficial referendum against priv-atisation of water in Strathclyde in 1994. Seventy-one per cent returned the ballots, and 98 per cent voted no to privatisation. The authorities took note. Privatisation did not go ahead.
Irrespective of the formal status of a future referendum, the politicians should - and in all likelihood will - abide by the result. Democracy, after all, means government by the people. To quote the English constitutionalist Vernon Bogdanor: "In the last resort, all arguments against the referendum are also arguments against democracy, while acceptance of the referendum is but the logical consequence of accepting the democratic form of government."
• Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Political Science at the Robert Gordon University and author of the book A Comparative Study of Referendums.
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