Elliot Bulmer: Not just King Eck’s realm

An independent Scotland is not for the SNP alone – and Scandinavia offers a model of government shaped by constitution, not personality

An independent Scotland is not for the SNP alone – and Scandinavia offers a model of government shaped by constitution, not personality

FROM now until the polls close on referendum day, the economics of statehood will be central to Scotland’s independence debate. A recently published poll has shown that a large majority of Scots support independence, on the condition that each would be £500 a year better off – so we can expect much discussion of where tax revenues go, whose oil it is, and whether the UK is a safety net or a fiscal drain.

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However, these fiscal calculations are a side issue. They ask only whether we would have more or less money to fund existing programmes. The unspoken assumption is that after independence everything else – the economic model, the tax structure, the regulatory arrangements, the civic culture – will remain static.

We should look at Scotland’s economic prospects more dynamically. A future Scottish state might make money and raise revenues in different ways, and spend it on different priorities.

Under prudent administration, it might even be possible to get more for less. Instead of policies tailored to the needs of a decaying and over-extended middle-ranking power of 70 million people, we could have policies suitable for a new, northern European country of five million.

So the economic case for independence ultimately rests on the belief that a Scottish state would serve the common weal of Scotland better than the British state has done. The common weal includes the goods we all hold dear, whatever our politics or identity: it means peace, capable administration, honest justice, sustainable prosperity, livable communities, clean and safe streets, decent and humane working conditions, thriving towns, a social safety net that does not become a poverty trap, and high standards of education and healthcare.

People rightly differ on how to balance, prioritise, achieve and pay for these goods – and politics is the mechanism by which we resolve those differences – but there is near-universal consensus that these are the conditions necessary for our well-being, and that the state has some part in delivering, or at least promoting, them.

An independent Scotland, so this “dynamic” argument goes, would be smaller, leaner and less barnacle-encrusted than the old British state. It would be less paranoid and less hung up about its past, and thus better equipped to adapt, innovate and survive in the 21st century. It is imagined as a peace-loving country, freed from the pretensions of great power status – able to waste less on nuclear weapons and invest more in green energy.

The Scotland of the SNP’s dreams is young, confident and forward-looking, with “kinder, gentler” policies and a “can-do” attitude, sitting comfortably in the “Arc of Democracy”, between the Benelux states and the Nordic bloc.

Building confidence in the ability of Scotland to govern itself is therefore a key part of the SNP’s gradualist strategy. The party has worked hard to earn a reputation for competent and intelligent government. Yet that record, in itself, offers little guarantee. An independent Scotland cannot belong to the SNP alone – still less can it be allowed to degenerate into Salmond’s fiefdom. It must belong, in the words of the Declaration of Arbroath, to the “whole community of the realm” – to all the people, of all parties and none.

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Good government, in other words, must be constitutionalised rather than personalised. This is an area in which Scotland can learn from our Scandinavian neighbours. Unlike the UK, all Scandinavian countries have written, codified constitutions, which set out the principles of democracy in a fundamental law, and clarify what governments and parliaments can and cannot do. They feature unicameral parliaments elected by proportional representation. Most make provision for mechanisms of transparency and accountability – auditors, ombudsmen and robust parliamentary committees – which prevent the government from manipulating the system to their own advantage.

They also incorporate checks and balances intended to stop democracy degenerating into personal populism. In Denmark, for example, one-third of the members of parliament can demand a referendum on legislation – a procedure which does much to encourage sensible dialogue between the government and opposition. As few as one-sixth of the members of the Swedish parliament can delay, for a year, legislation that would restrict civil liberties (such restrictions are, in any case, allowed only under strict conditions laid down in the constitution).

It is reassuring that the SNP has already done some preparatory work on the constitution of an independent Scotland. Its proposed constitution, produced over many years under the direction of the late Neil MacCormick, professor of law at Edinburgh University, provides for a parliamentary democracy of the Scandinavian type. There is plenty of room for detailed improvement, but in principle it is sound. The unicameral parliament would be elected by proportional representation for fixed four-year terms. A figurehead monarchy would be retained, with prime minister and Cabinet formally elected by and accountable to parliament. In place of the House of Lords, there would be a minority veto/referendum mechanism, loosely modelled on the Danish system, which would enable two-fifths of the members of parliament to veto a bill, other than a money bill, for a year to 18 months – subject to being overridden by a referendum.

Only parliament would have the power to authorise declarations of war and to ratify treaties. There would be an independent judiciary, nominated on the advice of a commission on judicial appointments. The autonomy of local government would have constitutional recognition.

These institutions would be based on a written constitution, incorporating a bill of rights. The constitution, reflecting the principle of the sovereignty of the people, would be capable of amendment only by a three-fifths parliamentary majority followed by a referendum.

The draft constitution could be one of the SNP’s most valuable assets in the referendum campaign. A firm commitment to a Scandinavian-style constitution, expressed ahead of the referendum, would enable the SNP to connect with the many disaffected Liberal Democrats, Greens, Socialists and others, who worry about the quality of democracy in the British state, and who long for a better alternative. It provides a guarantee that Scotland will not become the personal domain of a “King Eck”. It gives every citizen confidence that their democratic rights will be protected and their views represented. It ensures that the government of Scotland will ultimately be accountable to the sovereign people.

Above all, it provides some assurance that an independent state would serve the common-weal rather than personal or party interests. That has got to be worth £500 of anyone’s money.

• W Elliot Bulmer is research director of the Constitutional Commission. His new book, A Model Constitution for Scotland: Making Democracy Work In An Independent State is published by Luath Press, Edinburgh.