Rewriting the Constitution on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin

Gordon Brown is a man on a mission: he wants to save the Union. In order to achieve that goal, he has outlined a twelve-point plan that would see additional powers devolved to Edinburgh. But it would also entrench the Scottish Parliament as a permanent part of the United Kingdom’s constitutional settlement.

Entrenching the Scottish Parliament might not seem like a big deal, but it is.[1] Right now, the Parliament in Edinburgh exercises powers that have been delegated from Westminster under the various Scotland Acts. The Westminster Parliament could, however, abolish the Scottish Parliament at any moment. Entrenching the Scottish Parliament would almost certainly turn the United Kingdom into a true federal state.

All three main Westminster parties have now signed on to the Brown plan, and they promise to start laying the groundwork for it the day after the referendum (assuming Scotland stays in the Union, of course). The details would be hashed out by the end of November, and a new Scotland Bill would be introduced in the New Year (though with the General Election in May, it’s likely that the bill won’t actually become law until the new Parliament meets).

This hasty attempt to rewrite the British constitution has all the markings of a classic political stich-up between the three parties. The new Scotland Bill will be debated in Parliament, but the voters won’t be given a chance to register their approval or disapproval of it. Since all the main parties support the Brown plan, it will essentially be a fait accompli by the time the British people go to the polls in May. It seems strange that a proposed change to the electoral system merited a referendum, but a fundamental change to the constitution will be implemented without any input from the voters.

This is not just a Scottish issue—it will ultimately affect the entire United Kingdom. After all, if the Scottish Parliament is going to be entrenched, shouldn’t the Assemblies of Wales and Northern Ireland be entrenched as well? And shouldn’t England be given the same privileges as her sister countries? Instead of handing devolution on a case-by-case basis, it’s time to look at the subject holistically instead of resorting to back-of-the-napkin plans whenever there’s a crisis.


[1] The whole idea of entrenching the Scottish Parliament is problematic. In the United Kingdom, sovereignty resides with the Queen-in-Parliament, and no Parliament can bind its successor. However, although it might not be possible to legally bind future Parliaments, it’s possible to morally bind them. 

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4 Responses to Rewriting the Constitution on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin

  1. Their is an air of panicked desperation about the Westminster parties proposed last-minute bribery all smacks of ‘too little, too late’ now that the momentum seems to be firmly with the ‘Yes’ campaign. It could actually be counter-productive.

    In my opinion, the Brown plan sounds far worse for the rest of the UK than full independence!

    • -Note to self- Check spelling before commenting!

    • jasonloch says:

      Yeah, the ‘optics’ of the situation certainly don’t look good, and I doubt the Brown plan will appeal to many Yes voters. I think it would take something like ‘devolution max’ (i.e., giving Edinburgh control over almost everything except defense and foreign policy) to make serious inroads into the Yes camp, but that would introduce a different set of problems.

      Even though the Brown plan is more limited in scope, I think you’re right that it could be worse for the rest of the UK. If Scotland gets special powers that aren’t enjoyed by Wales and Northern Ireland, it will inevitably breed resentment, and it will only be a matter of time before Westminster is forced to put all the devolved governments on an equal footing. While it’s possible that this could work out just fine, it could also lead to a situation where the United Kingdom is united in name only, and it basically becomes the Holy Roman Empire.

  2. Pingback: Scotland Stays | A Venerable Puzzle

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