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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

XIII. The road to devolution

89. A Claim of Right for Scotland, 1988

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1In 1988 a Scottish constitutional committee issued A Claim of Right for Scotland. The title of the document explicitly referred to earlier claims issued in 1689 (opposition to the arbitrary monarchy of James II) and in 1842 (protest against government interference in the Church of Scotland). The 1988 Claim of Right was drafted by Jim Ross, a retired civil servant who had been Under-Secretary in charge of devolution at the Scottish Office from 1975 to 1979. The document combined historical analysis with political considerations and recommended that a constitutional convention should be established to discuss how Home Rule could be implemented. The strong nationalist tone of the document can be illustrated by the following sentence: ‘the Union has always been, and remains, a threat to the survival of a distinctive culture in Scotland’ (2.2). Yet, the Claim neither called for Scottish independence nor for the dissolution of the Union but demanded a greater degree of Scottish self-dependence. The document concluded with the following statement:

2Owen Dudley (ed.), A Claim of right for Scotland, Edinburgh: Polygon, 1989, p. 51-53.

Report of the Constitutional Steering Committee
Presented to the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly
Edinburgh July 1988


Scotland faces a crisis of identity and survival. It is now being governed without consent and subject to the declared intention of having imposed upon it a radical change of outlook and behaviour pattern which it shows no sign of wanting. All questions as to whether consent should be a part of government are brushed aside. The comments of Adam Smith are put to uses which would have astonished him, Scottish history is selectively distorted and the Scots are told that their votes are lying; that they secretly love what they constantly vote against.

Scotland is not alone in suffering from the absence of consent in government.

The problem afflicts the United Kingdom as a whole. We have a government which openly boasts its contempt for consensus and a constitution which allows it to demonstrate that contempt in practice. But Scotland is unique both in its title to complain and in its awareness of what is being done to it.

None of this has anything to do with the merits or demerits of particular policies at particular times, or with the degree of conviction with which people believe in these policies. Many a conviction politician contemptuous of democracy has done some marginal good in passing. Mussolini allegedly made the Italian trains run on time. The crucial questions are power and consent; making power accountable and setting limits to what can be done without general consent.

These questions will not be adequately answered in the United Kingdom until the concentration of power that masquerades as ‘the Crown-in-Parliament’ has been broken up. Government can be carried on with consent only through a system of checks and balances capable of restraining those who lack a sense of restraint. Stripping away the power of politicians outside Whitehall (and incidentally increasing the powers of Ministers inside Whitehall) restores power not to the people but to the powerful. The choice we are promised in consequence will in practice be the choice the powerful choose to offer us. Through effectively answerable representative institutions we can edit the choices for ourselves.

Whether Government interferes unnecessarily or fails to interfere where it should, political institutions answerable alike to consumers and producers, rich and poor, provide the means of correcting it. If these institutions are removed, restricted or censored, Government do not get accurate messages or can ignore any messages they do not like. If past conduct of politics has given cause for complaint, the answer is to open up and improve politics to give more accurate messages sooner, not to close politics down so that the few remaining politicians can invent the messages for themselves.

It is a sign of both the fraudulence and the fragility of the English constitution that representative bodies and their activities, the lifeblood of government by consent, can be systematically closed down by a minority Westminster Government without there being any constitutional means of even giving them pause for thought. It is the ultimate condemnation of that constitution that so many people, in Scotland and beyond, have recently been searching in the House of Lords for the last remnants of British democracy.

Scotland, if it is to remain Scotland, can no longer live with such a constitution and has nothing to hope for from it. Scots have shown it more tolerance than it deserves. They must now show enterprise by starting the reform of their own government. They have the opportunity, in the process, to start the reform of the English constitution, to serve as the grit in the oyster which produces the pearl.

It is a mistake to suppose, as some who realise the defects of our present form of government do, that the route to reform must lie through simultaneous reorganisation of the government of all parts of the United Kingdom. That will lead merely to many further years of talk and an uncertain prospect of action. Tidiness of system is a minor consideration. The United Kingdom has been an anomaly from its inception and is a glaring anomaly now. It is unrealistic to argue that the improvement of government must be prevented if it cannot be fitted within some preconceived symmetry. New anomalies that force people to think are far more likely to be constructive than impossible ambitions to eliminate anomaly.

Even if Scots had greater hopes than they have of voting into office a Party more sympathetic to the needs of Scotland, it would be against the long-term interests of Scotland to offer credibility to the existing constitution. There is no need for Scots to feel selfish in undermining it. They can confidently challenge others to defend it.

We are under no illusions about the seriousness of what we recommend.

Contesting the authority of established government is not a light matter. We could not recommend it if we did not feel that British government has so decayed that there is little hope of its being reformed within the framework of its traditional procedures. Setting up a Scottish Constitutional Convention and subsequently establishing a Scottish Assembly cannot by themselves achieve the essential reforms of British government, but they are essential if any remnant of distinctive Scottish government is to be saved, and they could create the ground-swell necessary to set the British reform process on its way.

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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