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The Future of the United Kingdom’s Territorial Constitution: Can the Union Survive?

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Abstract

The 2014 Scottish independence referendum has failed to settle the question of Scotland’s constitutional future, notwithstanding that a clear majority voted to remain part of the United Kingdom (UK). Since the referendum, the UK Parliament has legislated to fulfil the promise made to the people of Scotland that substantial additional powers would be devolved to the Scottish Parliament and its status as a permanent part of the UK constitution guaranteed. Nevertheless, a growing body of opinion argues that more comprehensive reform to the UK’s territorial constitution is required to ensure the long-term survival of the Union. This chapter outlines the nature of the UK’s current territorial constitution, arguing that, while it is formally unitary, constitutional practice suggests that it is better viewed as a union state. However, as currently constituted, the territorial constitution fails to either to adequately recognise the territorial diversity of the UK or to provide sufficient territorial cohesion to maintain the legitimacy of the UK state. An adequate programme of territorial reform therefore needs to go beyond further devolution of powers to Scotland to address problems of lack of security for the autonomy of the UK’s constituent parts, lack of attention to institutions of shared rules, and lack of constitutional reciprocity. Nevertheless, the chapter also identifies major obstacles to the achievement of comprehensive reform of the territorial constitution. It concludes that the territorial constitution is more likely to continue to develop through continued piecemeal and evolutionary change, and that, in the current climate of territorially-polarised politics, exacerbated by the result of the 2016 referendum on membership of the European Union, this represents an ongoing threat to the survival of the Union.

Keywords

  • Scotland
  • Devolution
  • Federalism
  • Independence

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Notes

  1. 1.

    To resolve doubt about the Scottish Parliament’s competence to authorise the holding of a referendum, an Order was made under s.30 of the Scotland Act 1998 to confer express, but time-limited, competence on it to do so: The Scotland Act 1998 (Modification of Schedule 5) Order 2013, SI 2013/242. The Scottish Parliament then enacted the Scottish Independence Referendum Act 2013.

  2. 2.

    The territorial constitution refers to the rules and principles governing relations between the constituent parts of the UK.

  3. 3.

    53.4% of voters in England, and 52.5% of voters in Wales voted to Leave the EU; 62% of voters in Scotland and 55.8% of voters in Northern Ireland voted to Remain.

  4. 4.

    A procedure which requires the consent of a majority of English (or English and Welsh) MPs, as well as a majority of all MPs, when legislation affects England (or England and Wales) only, and is also on a matter which is devolved to another UK legislature.

  5. 5.

    So-called, because the then MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell, during debates on the abortive proposals for devolution to Scotland and Wales in the 1970s repeatedly asked why he, as an MP for a Scottish constituency, should be able to vote on matters, such as health or education, affecting England only, when, following devolution, an English MP would not be able to vote on these matters in relation to Scotland.

  6. 6.

    E.g., under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, Sch 1, the UK Government may call a poll whenever it appears likely that there would be a majority in favour of leaving the UK and forming a united Ireland, but polls cannot be held more frequently than every 7 years.

  7. 7.

    N.b., the party system in Northern Ireland has always been different, which is one of the factors which removes it from the political and constitutional mainstream.

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McHarg, A. (2019). The Future of the United Kingdom’s Territorial Constitution: Can the Union Survive?. In: López-Basaguren, A., Escajedo San-Epifanio, L. (eds) Claims for Secession and Federalism. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-59707-2_8

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