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Scottish independence: Salmond pushes for new rights

Alex Salmond used his speech to criticise welfare reforms. Picture: TSPL

Alex Salmond used his speech to criticise welfare reforms. Picture: TSPL

  • by SCOTT MACNAB
 

ALEX Salmond called for the right to a home and free education to be enshrined in a written constitution, following a vote for Scottish independence.

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The First Minister also said a ban on nuclear weapons and future rules on international engagement of Scotland’s armed forces should be included in the document.

On the day that legislation giving Scotland the right to hold a referendum on independence was passed in the House of Lords, Mr Salmond used a speech to make the case for a written constitution. But the move was branded “posturing” by political rivals, who dismissed the prospect of a legal guarantee that student fees would never be introduced.

Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith said: “Alex Salmond is clearly still living in his fantasy land if he thinks that the Scottish people will believe him when he says all education will remain free in an independent Scotland.”

Constitutional law experts also warned that the Scottish Parliament could find itself hamstrung by a written constitution.

Mr Salmond said such a document would follow the “constitutional tradition” in Scotland of the 1320 Treaty of Arbroath and 1989 Claim of Right.

In a speech to the Foreign Press Association in London, he branded the current absence of a written constitution in the UK “democratic deficit”.

Most countries around the world, and particularly Europe, do have written constitutions, but these tend to focus on broader rights of the individual, rather than specific policy areas, such as education, which are usually left to the ruling government of the day.

But Mr Salmond suggested that these social rights could be included, along with a bar on nuclear weapons and restrictions on the use of Scottish troops.

“It is important to remember that the devolved Scottish Parliament already has embedded in it the European Convention on Human Rights, and these kind of safeguards will continue to be built into the parliament of an independent Scotland,” the First Minister said.

“However, what I have in mind are constitutional provisions that go beyond those touchstone rights.

“In Scotland, we have a policy of the right to free education, in keeping with our history as the nation which pioneered universal education.

“We also have homelessness legislation which is proving effective by granting rights to people who are made involuntarily homeless. There is an argument for embedding those provisions as constitutional rights.”

The SNP has already said that nuclear weapons could be banned under a written constitution, and Mr Salmond said yesterday that it could also be used to enshrine safeguards over the use of Scottish armed forces in future, after Westminster was “misled” into sanctioning the Iraq war.

But the prospect of enshrining social policy, such as the right to free education, in a written constitution met with a sceptical reaction from Dr Alan Trench, of the Constitution Unit at University College London.

He said: “Including this level of social policy in a constitution is always problematic.

“It may mean you can’t charge for school trips or music lessons or equipment. Does it apply to university education and education beyond that, such as professional qualifications?”

The proposal for a written constitution also came under fire from Dr Paul Arnell, a lecturer in constitutional law at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen.

“I’m not in favour of a written constitution for the UK or for Scotland,” he said. “The elected parliament is more powerful without one and can change the law more quickly and effectively.”

Dr Arnell pointed to gun laws which were hastily introduced in the UK after the Dunblane massacre, compared with the “inability of the United States to act effectively”, despite repeated shooting tragedies, because the right to “keep and bear arms” is enshrined in its constitution.

The Scottish Parliament itself was established relatively quickly with an act of the UK Parliament, he said.

“It’s about the flexibility on any issue – withdrawing from Europe, entering Europe, the euro, and these very big decisions being made quite readily.

“Some people might criticise this because they can be made too easily, but if one trusts their politicians and has a reasonable democratic system, then you’re trusting your parliament, as elected, to carry out the will of people at that particular time.

“It’s never frozen – the argument in America is that it is frozen at 250 years ago.”

Mr Salmond said yesterday that if Scots vote Yes in the referendum next year, legislation would be in place by May 2016 which would bring about the creation of an independent Scotland by transferring sovereignty to Holyrood.

By this stage, Scotland’s independence is likely to have been accepted by the international community and the necessary transition arrangements will have been made with the UK Government.

A new Constitutional Convention to draft the document would be established soon after the first independent Scottish Parliament was elected in May 2016, the First Minister added, with all political parties and the wider public and civic Scotland involved in the process.

Canon Kenyon Wright, who chaired the Constitutional Convention in the 1990s that laid the groundwork for the devolved Scottish Parliament, welcomed the development yesterday.

“It will be an opportunity for Scotland to demonstrate the long tradition in Scotland of the sovereignty of the people of Scotland, as expressed in the Claim of Right,” he said.

But political opponents accused Mr Salmond of “posturing” in the speech.

There was also no indication of the spending cuts or tax rises that would be needed to fund free education for time immemorial in Scotland, according to Liz Smith.

“Alex Salmond is clearly still living in his fantasy land if he thinks that the Scottish people will believe him when he says all education will remain free in an independent Scotland,” she said.

Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “The promise of a constitution on free education and housing means nothing.”

The Lib Dems uncovered figures recently which indicate thousands of young Scots are being turned away from colleges and hundreds of families living in B&Bs because of the cuts imposed by the SNP government.

Mr Rennie added: “At this rate, Alex Salmond appears on course to be the first defendant to be prosecuted in his own constitutional court.”

Paul Martin, Labour’s business manager, said the government should focus on keeping its current pledges.

But Green co-leader Patrick Harvie welcomed the prospect of a written constitution.

 

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