Ian Swanson: Should Scotland adopt a constitution

AMERICANS have had theirs for more than 200 years, the French base theirs on the battle cry of the revolution and Iceland has just adopted a new one.

AMERICANS have had theirs for more than 200 years, the French base theirs on the battle cry of the revolution and Iceland has just adopted a new one.

Written constitutions spell out a country’s system of government and safeguard citizens’ rights. The UK is unusual in not having such a document. But Alex Salmond found himself under fire when he said an independent Scotland should have one and suggested what might feature in it – namely, a right to free education, a home and a ban on nuclear weapons.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Opponents accused the First Minister of wanting to pack a key national document with SNP policy – although Mr Salmond said he wanted other parties and people outside politics to contribute their ideas, too.

Setting aside the party bickering, the debate about a written constitution offers an opportunity to consider what kind of Scotland people want. So what might be included in a Scottish constitution?

Martin Sime, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, is wary of a constitution with commitments to “free this or that”. He says: “There is a case for saying Scotland should be non-nuclear, but beyond that you get into the realm of day-to-day politics and things change.

“You could say that the purpose of taxation is to make public services available to citizens and care should be free at the point of delivery.”

Edinburgh-based human rights lawyer John Scott is enthusiastic about the idea of a written constitution and would like the debate to start now.

Top of his list are safeguards on the justice system and the rights of accused people, which he says are being eroded through measures such as abolishing the need for corroboration and allowing double-jeopardy retrials.

But he says it is “extremely encouraging” Mr Salmond is proposing the inclusion of social and economic rights. “Most constitutions have the civil and legal rights, but although there is a wealth of social, economic and cultural rights in various international conventions, most countries don’t put them in their constitution because they cost money.”

The Rev Sally Foster Fulton, convener of the Church of Scotland’s church and society council, says the mark of a nation is how it treats those who are most vulnerable and excluded. “If there was to be a written constitution, its central core should express that priority,” she says.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

But the Kirk’s own position could come up for debate. The Church of Scotland is recognised by the state as the national church and the monarch takes a vow to uphold Presbyterian church government. But in the face of falling church attendance and in an age of ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue, some in the Kirk may well argue for its role to be shared more widely with other denominations and religions.

• France

FRANCE’S constitution is based on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was a fundamental document of the French Revolution of 1789-99.

The revolutionaries’ battle cry of “liberty, equality, fraternity” is enshrined in the constitution as the country’s official motto.

The constitution establishes France as a secular and democratic country, deriving its sovereignty from the people.

The latest version, the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, shaped by Charles de Gaulle and adopted in 1958, sets out a balance of power between an elected president and an elected parliament.

It also guarantees equal rights for women and men, the right to strike, equal access to education, “the means for a decent existence” for those unable to work and “protection of health, material security, rest and leisure” for all.

• Iceland

VOTERS in Iceland endorsed a new constitution just last year in a bid to give the country a fresh start after the 2008 banking crisis.

A draft constitution was drawn up by a specially-appointed panel of 25 citizens, which used Facebook and Twitter to communicate with the public. It received 3600 comments and 370 suggestions via its website and the package was approved in a referendum.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Amongst other commitments, the new constitution declares all non-privately owned natural resources as “national property”, includes provisions to allow 10 per cent of voters to call a referendum, and limits the terms a president can serve to three.


America’s constitution – with its famous opening “We the people . . .” – was adopted in 1787 by the Constitutional Convention, presided over by George Washington, in Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence had been signed 11 years earlier. After being ratified by the states, the constitution came into effect in 1789.

It sets out a careful system of checks and balances between Congress, the president and the Supreme Court, and places certain limits on the powers of the states.

A batch of ten amendments – known as the Bill of Rights – was added in 1791, guaranteeing basic individual rights such as freedom of assembly, speech and religion, but also affirming the right to bear arms.